In the news today, the state of Vermont settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former clerk at the Washington County Courthouse in Barre. Shanda WIlliams was fired in 2018, and filed suit the following year alleging racial discrimination by her supervisor, Tammy Tyda. The state will pay her $60,000 to settle the case.
Fair enough. Sounds like the state got off lightly, given Seven Days’ account of her work experience. But there was a passage in the article that really bugs me. I think you can figure it out.
Last May, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office asked a federal judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that Williams’ initial filing was scant on evidence of discrimination. Williams had noted that she was the only Black worker in the Barre office. But the state argued that, because only 1.4 percent of Vermont’s population is Black, Williams’ “office was more diverse than Vermont generally.”
That’s some Kafkaesque reasoning right there. The only Black person in a workplace can’t possibly have suffered discrimination because… Vermont is an overwhelmingly white state?
There’s so much wrong here.
First, thank goodness the AGO didn’t win. If that argument passed judicial muster, it’d be very difficult for any person of color to ever win a discrimination lawsuit in Vermont. Because the state is so white that a single Black employee magically creates a diverse workplace!
Second, I’m not an expert on these matters, but it stands to reason that a solitary person of color is more likely to experience discrimination than someone in a more diverse workplace.
Third, does the office of TJ Donovan, our Democratic Attorney General, frequently resort to arguments like this? I realize the office has an obligation to defend the state. But it also has a duty to protect the rights of Vermonters. In this case, the AGO sided with the discriminator against the discriminatee.
Fourth, if we want Vermont to become a more diverse place, this kind of shit can’t be tolerated. It’s hard enough to be a person of color in such a white environment; state officials shouldn’t be punishing people because they’re so isolated.
We often hear people bemoaning the persistent whiteness of our state, and brainstorming ways to attract more BIPOCs to live here. (Well, not everyone. Tyda probably thinks Vermont is too diverse.)
But as Sen. Kesha Ram convincingly argued in a recent essay, Vermont doesn’t have a recruitment problem. It has a retention problem. Her essay is full of facts and figures supporting her argument, which ought to be chilling to well-meaning Vermonters. I mean, if people of color are choosing not to move here, that’s not really our fault. But if they move here, experience racism, and aren’t supported by their neighbors, their community or the government, and as a result they move away, well then. That’s a “we” problem.
I can imagine a person of color reading that Seven Days paragraph and concluding that official Vermont is not their friend. It’s one more brick in the wall, and that wall is already too damn high.
If Donovan didn’t know about this line of argument, he should have. If he did know about it — or even worse, sanctioned it — he’s got some decisions to make. Is it worth taking the side of discriminators to save the state a few bucks? Does Donovan have principles that might occasionally override a narrow sense of duty to state government?
Because this isn’t good. It’s one more little thing that helps keep Vermont so white.
Oh, by the way. Last summer, court employees leveled new charges of racial bias against Tyda. And don’tcha know, she’s still an employee of the court system — although she was recently transferred to a “special assignment” involving court software. I guess if she does all her work with computers, her racism won’t be a problem? And she can keep her job, despite repeatedly making racist remarks and costing the state tens of thousands of dollars?