Curtiss Reed Jr.: Advice for Bernie Sanders on racial injustice

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Dear Bernie,

In a moment of bewildered frustration after your encounter with Black Lives Matter activists in Arizona you asked, “How do we best deal with racism in America?” Your inquiry and affect indicated to us that you have moved from a state of being “unconsciously unskillful” with people of color to a state of being “consciously unskillful.” And this shift sets the stage for powerful, effective change if you are up to the task.

As executive director of Vermont’s longest operating nonprofit governed by people of color working towards racial and social justice I feel particularly qualified to respond to your plea. For two decades Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity has been helping well-intentioned white Vermonters move through being “consciously unskillful” to that of being “consciously skillful.” This work with white Vermonters serves as one cornerstone of our Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Initiative. Last year we completed the first decade of this four decades-long initiative.

We take you at your word and are encouraged that you have added Marcus Ferrell to your team since the Arizona incident. We have a lot of respect for the depth of Ferrell’s experience and insight as a political strategist and organizer. And while Ferrell brings heft to your campaign, the real work to be done is yours and yours alone. Our question to you is “Do you have the personal fortitude, political will and stamina to do the difficult work of moving beyond being well-intentioned?”

We offer the following five recommendations that only you can do for your own benefit. You cannot get the desired results by delegating these tasks to others. And whereas your entire campaign staff and volunteers should engage the following, this is about your personal and professional growth.

Acknowledge there are people of color living in Vermont. Every time you refer to Vermont as the whitest state in the nation you reinforce the narrative that people of color simply do not count in Vermont when in fact people of African heritage have been here since the 1600s and helped bring Vermont into statehood. We want Vermont to be known in fact, practice and appearance as the most welcoming state in the nation.

Personally and frequently meet with groups of Vermonters of color across the state to learn of the micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations and micro-injustices we experience under the New Jim Crow. First understand our experiences up close and personal before trying to make yourself and positions understood.

Partnering with your constituents of color in Vermont will make you a stronger and more effective operative on behalf of dismantling racism and creating a society where people of color expect and experience justice.


Personally and frequently meet with the organizations governed and managed by people of color engaged in the struggle to dismantle structural racism in Vermont to learn what has been working and where there are substantial challenges. Learn from us how to create a space for honest open exchange that leads to consensus concrete action.

Personally and frequently meet with white Vermonters who are working at the “consciously skillful” level to learn firsthand the challenges they face helping their well-intentioned white colleagues.

Stop talking about your experience in the civil rights movement of five decades ago like a proud Eagle Scout showing off his merit badges. Focus not on your past but on the actions you must undertake to address racial injustice today in the proud tradition of Vermont senators past and present.

For example, Sen. Justin Morrill, who introduced the Land Grant Act of 1890 that led to the creation of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Imagine how different the civil rights movement would be without the leadership of legions of HBCU alumni. Sen. Patrick Leahy, as a more contemporary example, has taken on two of the highest priorities for the civil rights/racial justice community: restoring the Voting Rights Act (which goes to the very core of racial justice) and ending mandatory minimum sentences. No one in Congress in modern times has done more to spotlight civil rights, voting rights and civil liberties issues as fully and frequently as Sen. Leahy.

Finally, understand that you, Bernie, are a work in progress; addressing racial injustice starts with the personal — the “being” is as important as the “doing.” Partnering with your constituents of color in Vermont will make you a stronger and more effective operative on behalf of dismantling racism and creating a society where people of color expect and experience justice. We understand Vermont, the context of racial injustice, and the particular opportunities well-intentioned white Vermonters, like yourself, to walk the talk of racial justice.

If you want to engage in the broadening of your understanding of people of color start here in Vermont and let’s set aside time to meet soon. Doing so would send a clear message that you are on the path to acquire the personal attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary to represent all peoples, including those of us of color.

P.S. I dropped by your campaign headquarters last week to speak with you directly however you were on the road. Instead I spoke with your campaign field director, Phil Fiermonte, and asked that he convey my thoughts as noted in this letter.

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  • Re “restoring the Voting Rights Act”: No new legislation is needed. The Supreme Court struck down only one provision in the Voting Rights Act – which was indeed unfair and outdated – and there are plenty of other voting-rights laws available to ensure that the right to vote is not violated. What’s more, the bill that has been drafted is bad legislation. For example, it does not protect all races equally from discrimination; it contains much that has nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision; and it itself violates the Constitution by prohibiting practices that are not actually racially discriminatory but only have racially disproportionate effects. The bill is also not really bipartisan; at Senate hearings last summer, it was clear that no Republican would favor it, because it is designed to give a partisan advantage to the Left.

  • Jason Wells

    A better path would be “All Lives Matter” but as we have seen from the net roots thing saying such would elicit boos, demands for an apology and being called a racist.

  • Zak O’Leary

    This article appears to be nothing more than another group seeking legitimacy to increase their earning power in Vermont.

  • Steve Fine

    Being black or, to be PC about it, a “person of color”, does not give Mr. Reed a monopoly on knowing what may be essential to remedy racial injustice in this country. And being head of the “Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity” doesn’t add weight to his commentaries, despite his claim that it makes him “particularly qualified”. Indeed, the very name of that organization suggests a let’s-not-shake-up-the-system-too-much-or-at-all approach to a critical problem that requires far more serious and decisive action. For Sanders to meet with “persons of color”, and to not refer to Vermont as the “whitest state”, undoubtedly will accomplish just about nothing.

    Mr. Reed seems to see the problem as one to convince white folks to be “kind”, “loving”, “accepting” of their black neighbors. Thus, the “Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Initiative”, whatever that is! But that is not the solution. No wonder it has taken “two decades” for the “Vermont Partnership” to get to where it is now….wheresoever that may be!

    The problem is to provide jobs, economic equality, education, and opportunity. And this is whether or not the white folks are “kind” or “loving” or “accepting” or have a “Multicultural Future Vision”. We don’t try to convince people not to commit murder. We just tell them that, if they do, for whatever reason, there are consequences. Black communities around the country have made clear that, if police brutality continues, for example, there will be consequences. After all, this is a nation that was born in violence and seems, somehow, to thrive on it, both at home and abroad.

    It is not important that this “whitest state” “love” or “accept” “persons of color”. What is important is that treatment of one community be not different from that of another, that treatment of the poor be not different from that of the well-to-do, and that opportunity be available to everyone. And we don’t care why, or if people are loved or accepted. It matters only that it be done!

    On a lighter note, however, I am much amused by Mr. Reed’s terms “unconsciously unskillful”, “consciously unskillful”, and “consciously skillful”, whatever those catchwords are supposed to mean. Can one possibly not be reminded of Donald Rumsfeld, master of the gibberish, who taught us that “there are known knowns….there are known unknowns…[and, of course]…there are also unknown unknowns….” My goodness.

  • John Greenberg

    Steve Fine:

    “The problem is to provide jobs, economic equality, education, and opportunity.”

    Tell that to Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor arrested for suspicion of burglarizing his own house.

    Or, closer to home, to Dartmouth grad and local athletic trainer Wayne Burwell, arrested, handcuffed and dragged out of his own house for the crime of sitting on his own toilet.

    The “problem,” Mr. Fine, goes well beyond your limited list. Wishing it away won’t make it go away.

    • Zak O’Leary

      You forgot to mention the first event occurred in 2009 and the second was in 2010. Bad things happen to all types/classes and colors of people every day.

      • John Greenberg

        Zak O’Leary:

        “You forgot to mention the first event occurred in 2009 and the second was in 2010.”

        And your point is??

  • Debbie Street

    I agree with Mr. Reed that too many whites are “unconsciously unskillful.” And I’m white. I get it. Being black absolutely DOES “give Mr. Reed a monopoly on knowing what may be essential to remedy racial injustice in this country.” I believe Bernie is smart enough to understand that POC are the experts on what we need to do with regard to race relations in the U.S. After all, they live with racism every day. They’re looking at it from the inside out.

  • Peter Galbraith

    Thank you, Curtiss, for writing this and for your decades of work to make Vermont a more diverse place and to make Vermonters more aware of our diversity.

  • “If you’re white its alright, if you’re brown stick aroun’, if you’re black GETBACKGETBACK!” Big Bill Broonzy
    On the surface that has changed; deep down it still remains. Senator Sanders knows that.

    I hope Sanders provides the opportunity for Mr. Reed to see that he (Sanders) “gets it”, which I firmly believe he does. I hope Mr. Reed is open to the possibility.

    When those who fight for equal justice are aligned, there is no greater force. The People, united, can never be defeated.

  • Ellen Oxfeld

    These are all good suggestions.

    As I’ve said before, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Economic oppression is not the only aspect of racism, that is for sure, but it is also not unimportant. The neo-liberal economic policies which Bernie Sanders opposes have sucked the wealth out of minority communities with devastating effects.

    As for civil liberties, defending and expanding voting rights, opposition to the incarceration state and police brutality, Senator Leahy has a great record. I think Senator Sanders has an equally vigorous legislative record advocating on all these issues as well.

    That does not mean that there is not there is not plenty of more work for Bernie Sanders and all of us to do, as suggested by this editorial, so that we can overcome racism as a system in this country. But, we should also give some credit to Bernie Sanders for the things he has long advocated and fought for both in terms of the economic issues which oppress racial minorities, and that of civil liberties and civil rights.