By Michael Shank
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and now needs bipartisan Senate support, is the bellwether for what’s possible in tackling systemic racism in America. The bill, which targets racial discrimination and excessive use of force in law enforcement, is the primary piece of legislation on the political table right now. No other policy response to the Black Lives Matter movement is this close to becoming federal law – and it’s now in desperate need of bipartisan support.
Vermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship is possible when tackling systemic racism. Gov. Phil Scott is one of the only Republican leaders in the U.S. right now acknowledging systemic racism and calling for its mitigation, saying that Vermont is “not immune to racism, divisiveness and hate,” and must redouble its “efforts to dismantle systemic racism and bigotry.” Scott seems willing to double down on this issue, not merely give lip service to the protests.
Given national Republican backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, this is laudable leadership by a Republican governor – especially in a state that’s predominantly white and notoriously so. Actor Adam Driver was right when he, acting in an NBC Saturday Night Live sketch, encouraged his neo-confederate brothers to move to Vermont because it was so white. There’s fertile ground for discrimination here. White supremacist groups are active and confederate flags fly, which is why the governor’s leadership is essential.
If Vermont could couple this Republican gubernatorial moderation with our progressive Democratic leadership in Congress, all of whom have called out systemic racism, it could be well-positioned to lead a national conversation on race, which is what former Vermont state Rep. Kiah Morris suggested after she resigned due to racial hate and harassment by white nationalists in Bennington.
This bipartisanship across our state’s highest levels of office, in naming systemic racism and working together to dismantle it, could serve as a template for how Republicans and Democrats across America could work together on this front.
Lead by Example
If Vermont is going to lead the nation in this conversation, however, we will have to come to terms with our own systemic racism. A study released last month shows that, in Burlington, Blacks are arrested nearly four times more often than whites. And in Vergennes, where the mayor resigned last month after suggesting that residents are intimidated and demoralized by the police, Blacks are stopped at a rate that is almost three times their estimated share of the population.
Throughout Vermont towns, racial bias and discrimination is apparent in policing. In Middlebury, a study by professors at Cornell and University of Vermont found that Black drivers are being stopped at higher rates than expected, given their share of the population. Half of the Black professors at Middlebury College have reportedly sought jobs at other institutions that may provide a safer environment, noting they’ve been followed by police in the past. While the town’s chief of police is on record rejecting “completely the notion that Middlebury PD engages in systemic racism” and asserting that he’s “not going to engage in a debate about it,” the town’s leadership, including the chief, are finally starting to at least talk about systemic racism, which is a start.
In Bennington, where the Supreme Court of Vermont has weighed in on officers needlessly drawing their guns on Black drivers, multiple reports point to bias and discrimination and excessive use of force. Researchers at Cornell and UVM again found that “the Black share of stops is almost 2.5 times greater than their share of the county population,” and the Crime Research Group found that “Black drivers were searched more than white drivers” and “Black drivers were arrested at a higher rate than white drivers.” Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a law enforcement group that speaks on behalf of law enforcement, noted Bennington’s “warrior mentality.” The town’s leadership, meanwhile, denies the problem and remains steadfast in their opposition to fire the chief – despite a citizen petition that calls for his resignation, which is growing in momentum and supported by the NAACP and others.
It’s this denialism, pervasive throughout our state, that’s so dangerous. Before leading the U.S. in any kind of bipartisan conversation, Vermont must acknowledge that it has a problem.
Learn from Minnesota
Vermont’s Attorney General TJ Donovan could intervene, similar to how Minnesota’s Attorney General Keith Ellison prosecuted police officers responsible for George Floyd’s death because there was little faith in local leadership’s capacity to do so. An intervention could help counter the criticism AG Donovan faces for doing little to confront the growing racism throughout Vermont.
Taking a lesson from Minnesota, the attorney general could start with Bennington, where ACLU lawsuits and calls for investigation into the town’s racial bias are becoming commonplace, where local Black leaders are moving out of town to stay safe, and where Black teenage girls just this summer were reportedly harassed by a white man who said he’d step on their neck, mocking them with “I can’t breathe” utterances. While the white man was cited by the town’s chief of police for making physically threatening remarks, the chief said their investigation didn’t find any racial motivation. Again, dangerous denialism.
Vermont, left untethered, is devolving, becoming a dangerous and discriminatory concoction – especially given the increase in hate crimes, the multiple defaced Black Lives Matter murals and BLM flags, the record-high purchase of weapons this year and the increase in militias and second amendment sanctuaries throughout the state. This armed racism could further escalate, and quickly, if the state’s not careful.
If Scott is serious about his efforts to mitigate systemic racism, he’ll go well beyond his newly established racial equity task force and, alongside the state’s attorney general, play a much more meaningful role in towns throughout Vermont, where police chiefs and racial discrimination appear to reign unchallenged. And they shouldn’t only tackle systemic racism in law enforcement, they should address other systems too, including real estate: Vermont has one of the most racially disparate home ownership rates in the U.S.
It’s clear that the U.S. needs bipartisanship leadership amid ongoing nationwide protests against racial discrimination and nationwide support for Black Lives Matters. If we fail to find it, expect widespread protest indefinitely. Vermont’s leaders could lead this conversation nationally, but only if it first addresses its internal racism. How powerful it would be for a Republican governor, a Democratic attorney general, and Democratic leadership in Congress to come together, in a bipartisan fashion, to call out concrete examples of systemic racism internally and then use that lesson to lead nationally. What a meaningful model that would offer the country. It’s time to lead, Vermont. The country needs you.