Rebecca Holcombe: Vermont Must Do the Work on Racial Equity

A friend of mine once told me that one of the challenges of being Black is that when someone treats you horribly, you can’t always know if it’s because they are having a bad day, or because they are racist. That uncertainty was a gnawing and stressful undercurrent in many of her daily interactions.  One thing cell phones and social media have made unavoidably clear is that all too often, people of color are fighting for their lives and livelihoods against racism. 

This was brought home to me a few years ago, I spoke with a young Black Vermonter, a new American, who was graduating from high school and receiving a merit scholarship to help cover the cost of college. Throughout high school, he worked hard and earned enough to help support his family, and he was headed to college to study business. He was full of promise and potential and energy — exactly what we need to jump-start opportunity in Vermont. I asked him what I, as Vermont’s Secretary of Education, needed to know to help others succeed. What he said chilled me: he said he expected Vermont to be about opportunity and fairness, but what he experienced was racism and religious prejudice. Like many Black and Brown Vermonters, he planned to run his own business so that he could live and earn on his own terms, for his family, without spending each day fighting upstream against bias. 

I thought about this young man last week, as I heard stories from Bennington, Hartford, and Rutland of black families accosted, threatened, and made to feel they are not welcome in Vermont. In the midst of a pandemic, language about staying away and outsiders not being welcome has a public health purpose, but in a state with limited experience with racial diversity, it can trigger ugly, racist confrontations.  

How frequently have you heard someone suggest newcomers are not “real Vermonters?”  I have heard from many young people of color that as they grow up, they are repeatedly asked where they are from in ways that reinforce the feeling that as a state, we haven’t yet embraced them as full members of our communities. 

Here is the reality. The vibrancy of our state’s future depends on embracing every person who chooses to make it home. We need all the bright minds and working hands we can get.  But it’s not enough to not be racist. Vermont must be actively anti-racist to be a place where our neighbors of color are safe and want to live.

Our immigrant population, many of them people of color, are one of the few bright spots in our bleak demographic forecast.  They are younger than our population as a whole. They are more likely to be in the workforce, especially in important sectors like manufacturing and health care.  Despite their small numbers overall, they added an estimated $712 million in estimated value to the Chittenden County economy in 2014. That wealth they created helped pay for public services. Our future depends on building a more inclusive Vermont, one in which every Vermonter, no matter their race or national origin, feels valued. 

We do a good job talking about equity, but what we need is action, and not just on symbolic issues. 

This is hard. Consider: Burlington City Council voted to remove a racist and exclusionary mural in the Church Street marketplace by this summer. This was an important choice to ensure some voices are not systematically written out of history. But we need to use the same urgency to make sure people of color are not written out of economic opportunity or written into the justice system on the basis of race. 

We have irrefutable data that tells us that across our education system, our justice system, and our health system, people of color don’t have the same opportunities.  And, within our lifetimes, there were established government policies — including eugenics and discrimination — that left many members of marginalized communities deeply distrustful, for good reason. We need to earn that trust back. 

Given this history, it is not enough to be color blind.  We must actively reject racism and bias.  We must work with Vermonters of color to ensure that in every sector, from criminal justice to public health to education, they have a fair opportunity to reach their promise. 

As governor, I will put policy behind their promise. When everybody has a fair chance to succeed, we are all better off.