When Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at the Netroots Nation Presidential Town Hall in Arizona this month, he was interrupted by activists from the Black Lives Matter movement who demanded that the two candidates – Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – address racial injustice issues.
Sanders was caught off guard, and it has been reported that he shouted at the protesters, eventually threatening to walk off stage if they didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
Later in the day he regrouped, saying: “I want some help on this. I’m being very honest,” CNN reported. “I want some ideas, as somebody who was arrested 50 years ago fighting for civil rights trying to desegregate schools in Chicago, who spent his whole life fighting against racism, I want your ideas. What do you think we can do? What can we do?”
One Vermonter has some ideas, and in an open letter to Sanders’ campaign, Curtiss Reed, a longtime racial equality trainer in the state, offered five steps Sanders should follow to improve the racial dynamics of his campaign.
For starters, Reed wants Sanders to meet with leaders of color in Vermont, “which is something that he hasn’t done.”
“Bernie needs to talk to his own people – his people of color that are right here in the state of Vermont – so that he has a much greater handle on the New Jim Crow and how racism has morphed since his days back 50 years ago,” Reed said in an interview.
Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro, also wants Sanders to stop calling Vermont a white state.
“We become marginalized in the narrative about Vermont,” Reed said. “He’s projecting this view of Vermont simply not having any people of color. Maybe in his own way that’s what he feels and what he thinks.”
Few is not none
In the 2010 U.S. Census, 10 of the state’s 14 counties declined in white population, Reed said. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2010, 59 percent of the population growth was “the result of ethnic and racial minorities” whether born in the U.S or those who migrated here.
“Our numbers are relatively small, but they’re not zero,” he said.
Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, the first Asian American woman in the Vermont House, said characterizing Vermont as a white state insinuates that Vermonters don’t know or care about race.
“[Reed’s] letter is very brave, and it resonates a lot with me,” Ram said.
It is important for Sanders to “acknowledge that there are people of color living in Vermont” and “convey that living in Vermont doesn’t mean someone has a lack of understanding of social justice and racial equality,” Ram said.
Ram has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary. She is waiting to see which one has the most “inclusive agenda.”
The biggest challenge the senator faces, Reed says, is his avoidance of issues that matter to people of color.
Reed has been working for two decades to help “well-intentioned white Vermonters.” His clients have included Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Megan Smith, commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance.
Weinberger could have given Sanders a lesson in how to deal with protester disruption. The mayor showed “conspicuously courageous leadership,” Reed says, when a group of disgruntled citizens appeared at an intergenerational racial justice dialogue facilitated by Burlington leaders two years ago.
“He grabbed Mike Schirling, the chief of police, and he invited the protesters right on the spot to go back into a conference room, sit down and hear what they had to say right then and there,” said Reed. “Not to tell them that they were disrupting a pre-planned program, but to have the courage to sit and listen and engage with the passion that people were expressing.”
Reed also said the recent applicant pool for a new police chief in Burlington was one of the most diverse the city has seen.
Smith, the marketing and tourism chief, has worked closely with Reed to improve tourism outreach to people of color. The department has developed an African-American Heritage Trail, with a map and guide featuring points of local interest.
Smith said the first time her department heard him speak, his message resonated.
“He said to me, ‘There’s no people of color in your state magazine,’ and he ticked off a lot of points, and I said, ‘We need to fix that right away.’
The Vermont State Police couldn’t be reached for comment, but Reed said they’ve consistently implemented trainings for a decade around “fair and impartial policing,” and that his group has helped with training, recruitment and executive coaching with senior leadership.
Leahy has introduced pivotal legislation for people of color. Sanders, on the other hand, hasn’t been a leader on civil rights issues, Reed says.
“He’s done nothing specific from my accounting on racial justice, in the way that Leahy has done,” said Reed, citing Leahy’s involvement in the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, and ending mandatory minimum sentencing.
“Those things speak to the core of the civil rights movement,” he said.
Reed said there is only one way for Sanders to make his efforts seem like more than just posturing: develop meaningful relationships with local leaders.
“I want to meet with Bernie one-on-one, to let him know, firsthand, where I think he can do better by Vermont.”
Reed starts the letter in a friendly tone, explaining how Sanders can transform his “consciously unskillful” attitude exhibited in the Netroots Nation event, to one that is “consciously skillful.”
Here are Reed’s five recommendations for Sanders:
1. Stop saying you are from a white state. “Acknowledge there are people of color living in Vermont,” instead of “reinforcing a narrative that people of color simply do not count” here.
2. Meet with groups of Vermonters of color across the state “to learn of the micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, and micro-injustices we experience.”
3. Meet with organizations governed and managed by people of color who are “engaged in the struggle to dismantle structural racism in Vermont” and learn from them.
4. Meet with white Vermonters who are operating at a consciously skillful level to learn the “challenges they face while helping their well-intentioned white colleagues.”
5. Stop talking about your experience in the civil rights movement “like an Eagle Scout showing off his merit badges” and instead focus on actions to deal with racial injustices today.