Editorial: Addressing systemic racism
In this unique moment in the national debate over racial justice, particularly as it is being portrayed through acts of police brutality, we are all asked to do the hard work of looking within, to examine our own wells of systemic racism and flush them out.
It’s a tall task and not easily confronted in Vermont—a state and landscape that is predominantly white.
According to the most recent Census, Vermont’s population on July 1, 2019, was 623,989. Of that, Vermonters were 94.2% white; 1.4% African American; 2% Asian; 0.4 American Indian; 2% Hispanic or Latino; and 2% of two or more races. We have been ranked as the nation’s whitest state.
Looking at those numbers, it may not make sense to some for institutions — schools, churches, businesses, the state — to focus on specific measures that seemingly affect so few, and that, some may argue, isn’t the gnawing problem that is seen in other states with more rabid violations of brutality against our fellow Black Americans.
It’s an argument that misses the point.
The objective is that when looking at America’s diversity — nationwide, Black Americans make up about 14% of the population, Latinos are 18%, Asian Americans 6%, and the white-non Hispanic population makes up 61% — there should be no distinction in terms of opportunity or prejudice. Read that italicized section again and you’ll see why America has a long way to go before we could honestly say there is no systemic racism. And the benefit isn’t just for the minorities, but rather for all of us to have a just and equitable society.
Imagine no obstacles for Black Americans seeking jobs or job advancement, access to housing or education, and the absence of bias in any social setting. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
As a white person seeking to erase that bias, where does one start?
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley offers a necessary Step One for institutions. When Hanley came to Middlebury 29 years ago, he recognized the need to reform the department and he set about doing so with a clear and direct approach — by stating the mission on the police department in terms that treated all people equally and with dignity. (See Hanley’s column.) Words are easy to say, but what’s even more impressive is that Hanley’s hiring practices sought to put a premium on personnel who bought in to his department’s principles—and he stuck to those principles even when he was understaffed and the right candidate was not immediately available.
Local businesses, organizations, clubs, churches and other institutions would be all the better if we each were to undergo a similar introspective reform. That doesn’t mean the core of an institution needs to change, but rather that it should seek to rid itself of any biases or obstacles that prevent non-white Americans from feeling unwelcome, excluded or otherwise restricted in their abilities to contribute.
On a family level, Addison Independent reporter Megan James interviews Joanna Colwell, who heads Middlebury’s chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, to get her thoughts on how to talk to children about such issues and offers helpful insights, such as sorting through your personal library of kids books to see how many feature “white protagonists and do something about that.” And don’t just pick books that are explicitly about injustice, Colwell suggests and James writes, “but look for stories featuring people of color that have nothing to do with racism. (‘Doc McStuffins,’ for example.)”
In Vermont, we may think we aren’t racist but the number of police arrests that target the Black community tells a disturbing story. According to the 2010 Census, the number of Black Americans arrested in Vermont per 100,000 amounted to 2,214 compared to just 220 for white Americans, 891 for Hispanic Americans and 1,314 for American Indians. Put another way, Black and Hispanic drivers were roughly 2.5 to 4 times more likely to be searched by police than white drivers, and 30 to 50 percent less likely to be found with contraband due to that search than white drivers.
Recognizing that such prejudice is prevalent in the state’s policing is the first step in addressing that bias. Gov. Phil Scott’s creation of a Racial Equity Task Force is another step forward. “We cannot continue to treat racism and examples like the one in Minneapolis as uncomfortable and rare events,” Scott said last week. “(But) a task force is not the cure-all for what ails us. It is going to take some soul searching and real change—individually and systemically—to make a difference.”
Is that enough? Not nearly, but it’s a place to start. From there, individuals, towns, churches and others must start the discussion of how to eliminate prejudice against the other that too often turns to hatred, especially when leaders choose to sow the seeds of bias and fan the flames of anger as President Trump and far too many Republican leaders have done these past three to four years. Several letters to the editor in this edition add insight to the issue as does Mary Mendoza’s column.
It is no small irony, that the unjustified and brutal death of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department sparked a smoldering fire burning within the nation that will hopefully lead the country to a needed reckoning on this vexing national malady and crack down on the increasingly violent police brutality toward Black Americans the nation has witnessed these past two decades—years in which Republicans and conservatives, in general, have become increasingly militant.
In Vermont, Addison County and in our homes, we each need to do our part to move the country toward an equitable society—and hopefully one that doesn’t rely on an abusive use of firepower to solve our internal problems. Let the work begin.
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