Middlebury selectboard gets schooled on racism
MIDDLEBURY — The members of the Middlebury selectboard asked for a tutorial on white supremacy and the root causes of racism.
And that’s just what they got on Oct. 13 — a thorough primer that left town officials moved and searching for more information in the quest for racial justice in Addison County’s shire town and beyond.
The presentation, titled “Racism in Vermont,” was delivered by members of Middlebury IDEAL, which stands for “Invest, Divest, Educate, Abolish, Liberate.” The group is a collective of Middlebury-area residents working to “reduce systemic harm by creating new policies, structures and accountability measures for the town of Middlebury,” according to one of its members, Joanna Colwell. She and fellow IDEAL leaders Janae Due and Matthew Delia-Lobo drafted and led the presentation.
IDEAL members were among a dozen people who this past spring had urged the Middlebury selectboard to redirect some of the local police department’s funding toward social services. This effort came in the aftermath of the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s murder, and others like it, gave rise to nationwide protests against racial injustice and calls by some to defund police agencies and redirect some of those resources to support services that law enforcement has increasingly been called upon to perform.
Middlebury has witnessed its share of intolerance in 2020, with racist graffiti found downtown, “Zoom bombing” incidents in which offenders have posted racist messages during online public meetings, and the repeated thefts of Blacks Lives Matter signs from residents’ lawns.
IDEAL last week provided the selectboard with historical perspective on racism and how it continues to survive in the 21st century “by an increasing finesse and ability to hide in plain sight, in particular from white people,” Colwell told town officials.
While the 13 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it provided an exemption for crime, Colwell explained.
“This clause allowed the Southern economy — which was in tatters after the Civil War and now was without the free labor of an enslaved workforce — to recapture this labor force by criminalizing Black people into a new form of slavery,” she said.
Southern states passed “Black Codes” to govern the conduct of, and ensure low wages for, African Americans in what became a prison-plantation system.
“As Jim Crow was solidified and Black people fled the violence of the South in the early to mid-20th century, police were key to securing segregation and racial oppression across the U.S.,” Colwell said.
“Police were used by wealthy factory, mine and farm owners to break strikes and attempt to crush unions,” she added, alluding to the second half of the 19th century. “Police used extreme violence to disperse demonstrating workers, and they also used trivial ‘public order offenses’ to arrest staggering numbers of working people.”
Colwell argued that former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton gave police more tools and authority to “use numerous tactics to attack and criminalize specific groups of people” during the “War on Drugs” during the 1980s and 1990s.
She pointed to statistics indicating:
• 13% of the U.S. population is Black, while 40% of its prison population is Black.
• A white man has a one-in-17 chance of ending up in prison; for Black men, it’s a one-in-three chance.
• “The U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners” — a quote from former President Barack Obama.
VT’S RECORD ON RACISM
While Vermont has earned a progressive reputation, it has not been immune to racial injustice, Due noted.
She acknowledged Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery, but this was conditional to those who were 21 and older, according to Due.
Alexander Twilight was indeed the first Black college graduate in the country, but Middlebury College was unaware of his race at the time of admittance, Due said. And she added the college subsequently denied admission to Andrew Harris some 15 years later due to his race.
When Frederick Douglass came to Vermont to speak about slavery abolition in 1843, he was harassed, called racial slurs, and only six people attended his event, Due said, adding a KKK rally held in Montpelier in 1925 drew 10,000 people.
She lamented the fact that the black population in Vermont has remained very small through the years. Between 1915 and 1930, more than 1 million African-Americans moved from the South to the North, referred to as the “Great Migration.” While Vermont had no all-white communities prior to 1930, it became a whiter state during the years following the Great Migration.
Racist covenants and property deeds were not the only things keeping Black people from Vermont, Due noted. “Sundown towns” affected the livelihoods of Black people across the Northeast. Sundown towns are municipalities that prevented African-Americans or other minoritized people from lingering after dark using violence, intimidation and over policing, according to Due.
“Black children were expected to be in the house before the last streetlight came on, because it was not safe for Black people to be out after dark,” she said. “Breaking curfew could result in harassment, assault or death.”
Due said University of Vermont sociologist James Loewen maintains a database of reported sundown towns, with seven possible examples in Vermont: Bellows Falls, Colchester, Morrisville, Poultney, Swanton, Tunbridge and Waterbury.
She presented three recent examples of Black Vermonters being intimidated because of their race:
• Former State Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington County ending her re-election campaign in 2018 after being racially harassed by a self-described internet troll, Max Misch, and others like him.
• Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, received numerous threats that resulted in her family selling their home, moving quickly, and ending her campaign for local high bailiff.
• Due, herself, reported being harassed in town by a white man “with a racist agenda.” She said that when she politely asked him to leave her and her friends alone, “he accused me of being aggressive. This is a direct threat to my safety. We see what happens when white people claim aggressiveness of Black people, and it usually ends up with the Black people arrested, beaten or dead.”
She cited additional examples of recent racism in Vermont, including vandalism to the Black Lives Matter mural in Montpelier and the racist graffiti in Middlebury.
Delia-Lobo referred to what he said are racial disparities in policing and incarceration in Vermont. The Green Mountain State has the highest rate of adult Black male incarceration out of all 50 states: 1 in 14, according to Delia-Lobo. And that number doesn’t include Vermont residents in federal prisons or jails — just those in state prisons.
“The rate of Black imprisonment here is more than 10-and-a-half times that for whites,” he said. “These statistics alone show Vermont’s serious, systemic racial bias in law enforcement.”
He specifically pointed to a 2017 report called “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” authored by UVM Prof. Stephanie Seguino. According to 2014-2017 data compiled in Seguino’s report:
• Black drivers are stopped by the Middlebury Police Department at a rate that is more than 1.5 times their estimated share of the Middlebury population, and just under 1.5 times their share of the population are stopped in Addison County by the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
• 38% of Addison County Sheriff’s Department officers stopped black drivers at a rate of more than 50% of the agency’s black driving population, while the rate was 56% for Middlebury officers.
• When it comes to traffic stops in Vermont, Black and Hispanic drivers continue to be roughly 2.5 to 4.6 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, despite being 30 to 50 percent less likely to be found with contraband subsequent to a search than white drivers.
• The number of traffic stops and searches of Addison County men drivers during 2014-2017 showed the white male “stop rate” was 63.4%, versus the black male stop rate of 86.6%, and the Hispanic male stop rate of 77%. White men during these stops were searched at a rate of 0.3%, versus the Black male search rate of 1.5% and the Hispanic male search rate of 6.6%, according to the Seguino report.
“This is the most comprehensive data reflecting specifically on traffic stops in Vermont, Addison County and Middlebury that we have access to at this time, and we think that it shows extremely compelling evidence that Black and brown residents in Middlebury and the surrounding areas experience an unfair amount of policing, when compared to white residents,” Delia-Lobo said.
He remarked Middlebury has been earmarking around $1.8 million annually for its police budget, and another $200,000 each year for health and social service agencies that serve local residents.
“We think it’s worth posing the question: Does our police budget reflect the needs of all members of our community, or just some of them?” Delia-Lobo asked.
“It’s worth thinking about reframing how we deal with things in our community, and that needs to start with understanding how the full picture looks for all community members, not just the majority.”
LEARNING AND DOING
Middlebury selectboard members thanked IDEAL members for the presentation, a springboard to a facilitated retreat on racial issues the board will hold within the next three weeks.
Selectwoman Lindsey Fuentes-George’s husband is Kemi Fuentes-George, an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. Kemi has written about, and been quoted in, the Independent about his experiences as a Black man living in Middlebury.
Lindsey, who is white, said it’s important to realize people have had disparate experiences with racism and law enforcement.
“(My husband) has had two or three times the interactions with police officers that I have had, and he’s lived in the country half the time,” she explained. “He’s never had the experience of needing to call the police, thank goodness — so that means every time he was interacting with police, it was because he ‘looked suspicious,’ or ‘somebody thought he looked suspicious.’ So every interaction he’s had has been negative.
“The important thing is to understand is … we’re all bringing something different to the table, but our understanding is going to be imperfect and we are going to feel uncomfortable,” she added. “I’m also committing to listening and learning as much as I can.”
Selectboard member Victor Nuovo acknowledged much work needs to be done in the cause of racial justice.
“I think there’s a need to look at the entire system in which we have our society organized,” he said. “I think it’s steeped in white society. It’s something we should be ashamed of. But a feeling of shame is not enough to drive it out.”
He cautioned, however, that society “can have social services that are just as racist as police services. It seems to me it’s a deeper problem, and just focusing on one agency and say, ‘We’ll give them less money and give it to someone else and things are going to work better,’ I’m afraid that’s too simplistic.”
Due acknowledged that bias can be pervasive, but added, “other institutions aren’t weaponized, and have guns and Tasers and batons and K-9s that can cause severe psychological and physical harm.”
Selectman Nick Artim questioned the wisdom of potentially diverting funds away from public safety, which he said serves everybody.
“We can’t eliminate them, because they’re a critical part of keeping us all safe,” Artim said. “But if there are specific issues that need to be addressed, we certainly want to know the details of those so they could be properly addressed.”
Due countered that not all folks feel safe in the presence of police, given how they might have been treated in the past.
“While I respect what you’re saying, it’s not the lived reality or experiences of a lot of BIPOC community members here in Middlebury,” she responded.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.