Category Archives: Racism

Why is Phil Scott’s Education Secretary Boosting Right-Wing Propaganda?

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French posted this tweet, calling attention to a new free online American History text. What he doesn’t say is that this “Free Online U.S. History Resource” came out of the Koch brothers’ network of conservative/free market nonprofit organizations. And the history lessons on offer are slanted in favor of an originalist, American exceptionalist, small-government view of things. They also present a sugar-coated version of the story of slavery and race relations in America. Resources on abortion, health care, firearms, marriage equality and other issues are strongly tilted toward the right. The Zinn Education Project:

In its materials for teachers and students, the Bill of Rights Institute cherry-picks the Constitution, history, and current events to hammer home its libertarian message that the owners of private property should be free to manage their wealth as they see fit. As one Bill of Rights lesson insists, “The Founders considered industry and property rights critical to the happiness of society.”

French’s tweet appeared on his personal account and does not necessarily reflect his professional views — but he identifies himself in his Twitter bio as Education Secretary and this tweet was published at 10:09 a.m. on Tuesday, when he was presumably at work. The lines get blurry real quick. The tweet can certainly be viewed as an endorsement from the state’s top educator, which is a pretty powerful thing.

The Bill of Rights Institute, which “publishes” the material, is taking advantage of the fact that many public schools are under-resourced. The offering of free texts can seem like a godsend to strapped districts — and low-income students as well. On its own website, it boasts of having reached “more than 5 million students and over 50,000 teachers.”

It’s possible that French is ignorant of the origin and true purpose of the Institute. As is common practice in the Koch empire, its name and branding are designed to be inoffensive. I mean, who can be against the Bill of Rights? But as an educational professional whose word carries weight, French ought to know what he’s talking about before he hits “send.” If he doesn’t, he hasn’t done his, ahem, homework. And he shouldn’t be giving his imprimatur to ideologically biased educational materials.

The Outsourcing of Bull Connor

The battle against Black Lives Matter is being massively escalated by the day. We’ve gone from Kyle RIttenhouse straight-up gunning people down, to pimped-out pickup trucks with pepper spray super soakers (and Trump flags) driving through crowds of peaceful protesters. (General Motors must be so proud of that product placement.)

I’m old enough to have witnessed some of the carnage of the 50s and 60s, when civil rights finally came to the Old South — and the South fought back with all its might. And this is same song, new verse, except the deadly force has been privatized. If anyone thought we’d made progress since 1965, or somehow become a post-racial society, explain this.

I can only imagine how any of my Black contemporaries feels about this, seeing those old fuzzy video images come back to life in the starkest possible way.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine. Here’s writer Damon Young on the subject of Black resilience.

Being born Black don’t make us any more resilient than anyone else. We ain’t stronger. We ain’t tougher. We’ve just been given more shit to carry. Our kinship with resilience is just us convincing ourselves we can hold that weight, and them justifying how heavy they pack our bags.

This is why Doc Rivers was moved to tears. This is why our best athletes are questioning whether they can go on playing the games they love. They are hurting in a deep and real way that us white folks can’t even imagine. They aren’t volunteering to share their pain, nor should be feel any obligation to do so, because it involves opening the wounds once again. That’s not something you do unless have no choice, because the pain is so great.

The President of the United States is acting like George Wallace, the O.G. segregationist who was willing to foment racial violence for the sake of his political benefit. Donald Trump shows that there are still plenty of white folks racist enough that all they need is a signal. Trump is blowing all the dog whistles as hard as he can, and will keep on doing it until Election Day.

Every day, every dog whistle, every act of racism, will cut to the bone. We can only hope it ends on Election Day with an unambiguous rejection of Trumpism. It’ll be bad enough when, as seems very likely, a majority of white voters choose Trump despite all of it.

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Black Boxes

W.E.B. DuB — wait, Frederick Dou — no, he had a beard. James Baldwi — nah, he’s the skinny one. I got it! Zora Neale Hurston.

The late British author Joanna Russ wrote a truly excellent book called “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” which is the slam-dunk answer to those who say “If female authors are equal to men, why didn’t they write more Great Books?” (Ditto music, art, or any other form of expression.) Russ goes through the eleven-stage process that prevents women from writing and, if they manage to get published, minimizes their accomplishments.

It’s a quick and eye-opening read. Or if you’re strapped for time, the eleven points are summarized on the book’s Wikipedia page. Which, unlike Scots Wiki, appears to be legit.

An identical book could be written called “How to Suppress Black People’s Writing” or, well, insert your ethnic group or subcategory here. This hit me like a two-by-four — as I confessed earlier, very much belatedly — while I was reading Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. He organizes his chronicle of racist thought in America around the lives of five people: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis.

One thing I never knew: How long and distinguished the careers of DuBois and Davis were. I’d always thought of DuBois as a figure of the distant past, specifically the late 19th Century and the first couple decades of the 20th. But as I learned from reading Kendi’s book, DuBois was a respected figure and a widely published author through nearly two-thirds of the 20th Century. He died on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.

(Many of you, I’m sure, are thinking “No shit, Sherlock.” But as I wrote previously, I am a reasonably well-educated and well-read person who tries to explore important issues and think clearly about them, and yet my knowledge is embarrassingly limited. I suspect I am representative of many well-intentioned wypipo.)

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Waking Up to Racism

I’m 66 years old. And I’ve learned more about racism this year from reading three books than I’d managed to learn in my entire lifetime before.

The books, pictured above, read in this order: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Before I explain what these books have taught me, I need to write about how I got here in the first place. I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Detroit. I went to a very good public school system and a top-notch university. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve been aware of racism as an issue. I’ve tried my best to not be a racist. I’ve tried to be an ally.

But there are huge gaps in my knowledge of American and world history that kept me from realizing the true depth and impact of racism in my country. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance, and I’m doing my best to rectify the situation.

Up to a point, I can blame my education. “World History” as it was taught in school and college was a joke; it basically included European history plus a Euro-centric view of Middle Eastern history. When I was in college, Black Studies was starting to be a thing — but I never thought it relevant to me, since I was already a good white liberal who marched in Open Housing protests in my lily-white suburb.

Since I graduated (in 1978), I’ve been responsible for my own intellectual diet. I’ve read tons of books and thought myself well-educated, but I’ve never consciously chosen to read anything about race relations. Offhand, I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever read by a Black author. I’ve likely read one or two, but nothing that’s ever left a mark on my thick skull.

No W.E.B. DuBois, no James Baldwin, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston or Octavia Butler or Angela Davis or bell hooks, no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. No Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even his run on Black Panther. I’ve never read a biography of a Black person, or anything focused on African history. My leisure reading is mainly sci-fi and mystery, but never have I ever read Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin or Walter Moseley.

And I’ll bet I’m far from alone among the ranks of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading*, comfortable, well-meaning white folks. My lack of knowledge and perspective have severely hampered my ability to see the world clearly or to be an effective ally.

*I let my subscription lapse a couple years ago and made a deliberate decision to read more books. I’ve never regretted it.

So now, the books.

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The Cops Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

In the least shocking news of the year, Vermont Police are still being racist about their traffic stops.

The same research team that found racial disparities in traffic stops and searches two years ago, has updated its report to reflect two more years of data. And while there’s been some incremental improvement, things “are getting worse or staying the same,” according to lead researcher (and UVM prof) Stephanie Seguino.

Topline takeaways: You’re much more likely to be pulled over if you’re black or Hispanic in Vermont. If you’re pulled over, you’re much more likely to be searched — even though searches of white drivers are much more likely to uncover illegal activity.

The cherry on top: Despite a 2014 law mandating that police report the apparent race of each driver stopped, plenty of cops are flouting the law. Take, for example, Bennington’s racist PD, which is omitting the data more frequently than ever. And the Rutland PD, which has a specific problem with including racial data: “…for the 457 stops where race of the driver is not known, less than 1% of those stops had any other missing information about the stop.”

So now what? More sensitivity training? “Tough conversations”? Earnest promises to do better?

Yeah, a lot of that — although some can’t even be bothered to pretend to care. Bennington chief Paul Doucette lamely offered that he needed more time to look at the report before commenting. (The report notes that the volume of traffic stops in Bennington increased by 65% between 2015 and 2019. If Doucette has had any second thoughts about his minions’ racist performance, the word hasn’t filtered down through the ranks.)

And, judging by his track record, he probably hung up the phone and tossed the report into the circular file.

Which is not to say that we should place all the blame at the feet of a few cops and chiefs. After all, the thing about “bad apples” is that they spoil the barrel.

Or maybe the whole barrel was spoiled to begin with.

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How Many Merkels?

Get a load of this mook, all tac’d up like he patrols the Mean Streets of Detroit or summat

The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?

You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?

You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.

It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.

(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)

Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”

Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.

I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.

Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.

This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?

Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.

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Black Lives Matter, Except When They Don’t, and Even When They Do They’re Pretty Damn Cheap

Hey, remember when the good folks of Montpelier painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in front of the Statehouse, and they got really upset when a guy committed a minor (and easily expunged) act of vandalism on it?

Well, the state of Vermont effectively obliterated the entire thing — with the spilled blood of a Black man. And the promise that “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will remain a well-meaning myth as long as Kenneth Johnson’s life can end so cheaply. And as long as Shamel Alexander gets a measly $30,000 in recompense for his wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment by the justice system of our fair state.

Johnson died last December while in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to a report from Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio, Johnson’s death was the slow, painful result of negligence by medical and prison staff.

Valerio’s report, which you can find at the link to Seven Days’ website above, provides more than adequate grounds for termination and criminal prosecution of multiple unnamed staffers. Valerio outlines a case of homicide by professional negligence that’s appalling and inexcusable.

And an example of Your Tax Dollars At Work.

I don’t know what’s the worst part of this. To begin with, Johnson was in prison awaiting trial. He faced some truly heinous charges, but he hadn’t been convicted. He still wound up with a death sentence, thanks to your public servants and their designees. His medical care was botched from the get-go; he had a throat tumor obstructing his airway that could have been treated, but instead he was thought to have a cold or some other minor ailment. His pleadings for care fell on deaf ears.

From the report: “Security video showed Mr. Johnson in various stages of agony. He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help… One [nurse] claimed she did not perform adequate checks [on Johnson] ‘because he was so fidgety.'”

Let’s hope this nurse quickly becomes an ex-nurse. She seems more constitutionally suited to a less vital profession, like maybe convenience store cashier or DMV clerk.

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Trump Has Broken the Police (Updated)

Since the death of George Floyd, we’ve seen police officers do a whole lot of bad stuff. I mean sure, most police are good people etc., etc. But there’s too much shit going on to blame it on a few bad apples.

We’ve seen unreasonably aggressive force used on peaceful protesters — and on people who just happened to be in the way. We’ve seen people chosen, seemingly at random, for beatings and arrests. We’ve seen excessive use of tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and other instruments of “humane” policing. We’ve seen police vehicles drive through protesters. We’ve seen numerous officers stand idly by while their colleagues engage in needless violence. We’ve seen police destroy water supplies and first-aid stands. We’ve seen loads of instances of police attacking journalists who had identified themselves and were carrying proper credentials.

And we’ve seen police committing vandalism to private property and even to their own vehicles, apparently to justify attacking and arresting peaceful demonstrators.

They’re acting with impunity, with no apparent fear of punishment, dismissal, or shaming. Hell, they arrested a CNN reporter and his crew during a live television broadcast.

They’re acting like Proud Boys with badges. Take this Orange County sheriff’s deputy (please, take him) who thought it was a dandy idea to report for protest duty wearing paramilitary patches right next to his actual badge.

OK, so America has been dealing with a sometimes-toxic culture of policing for a long time. But there’s something different about the ubiquity and shamelessness of police misconduct during the George Floyd protests.

And I think it’s Donald Trump.

Throughout his presidency, he’s been normalizing — nay, celebrating — behavior that is widely considered aberrant. He’s talked of beating up demonstrators, reporters, “not being too nice” with suspects. He has encouraged all the forms of police misbehavior that have been on broad display these past several days.

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When energy is “renewable” but not exactly clean

Can we stop talking about how wind turbines destroy ridge lines?

Real shocker from VTDigger: The large-scale hydropower dams in northern Quebec, which provide much of Vermont’s supply of “renewable” electricity, have taken a human toll on First Nations communities in the far north. And will take an even greater toll as more dams are built.

Because of course they have and of course they will. Each dam floods huge tracts of land. The Innu and Inuit people depend heavily on using their land for hunting and gathering. Their lives are being constricted by the buildout of hydro power, which is in high demand from New England states eager to meet renewable energy targets. Which, in turn, means that more dams are in the works.

By exporting our environmental pain to faraway people. Or, as Inuit elder Alex Saunders put it, “Think about what you’re buying here. You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada.”

You put it that, way, HQ’s “renewable” energy seems a little less renewable.

This isn’t a simple issue. HQ is a major resource for non-carbon-emitting power, and will continue to be. But the lives of indigenous people shouldn’t be swept aside — especially when Vermonters are so queasy about the esthetics of solar and wind installations in their home state, and seem to want to preserve Vermont’s [ahem, false] purity at the expense of others.

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Holy Crap, the Free Press just “both-sidesed” the Confederate Flag

As a person who hasn’t gotten around to canceling their increasingly-irrelevant subscription to the Burlington Free Press, I get its daily briefing in my inbox. And today’s edition greeted me with THIS.

That’s right, the former Best Newspaper In Vermont is peddling Stars “N Bars claptrap right out of the Nikki Haley playbook. “Some argue the Confederate battle flag is racist”??????

And to be clear, this isn’t simply a case of some intern carelessly writing a subhead for the daily email. That same idea is peddled throughout the story.

The flag has come under national criticism in recent years, seen at events such as the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Um, exsqueeze me? “In recent years“??????? That rag has been the banner of racist oppression since Appomattox.

The germ of this idea comes from Paul Searls, history professor at Northern Vermont University (which I will always think of as Lyndon Johnson U, don’t @ me). He asserted that the flag may not carry the same overtly racist message up here that it does in the South.

Some Vermonters might view the Confederate flag as a symbol of ideals and their lifestyles, Searls said, and fly as a symbol of resistance against the existing order and outsiders perceived as threats to their well-being.

Yeah, well, those Vermonters are ignorant of their country’s history and shouldn’t be given a free pass for such.

Searls did also describe the battle flag as “a potently provocative symbol,” so there’s that. And the article does finally come down on the side of “the flag is inherently a bad thing.” But in the process, it sets up a false “debate” that the S&B can be anything other than a toxic instigation. Thanks, Free Press!