Stephanie Seguino: Racial woes in South Burlington

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Stephanie Seguino, of Burlington, who is a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Vermont.

The continued backlash against the South Burlington school budget, connected to the board’s decision to retire the Rebel mascot name, reveals the unspoken racial tensions that exist in our community and throughout Vermont.

On the surface, the fight appears to be about how closely the “Rebel” name is connected to the Confederacy and how much time must pass before the link can be ignored.

But there is a more pressing and personal aspect of this issue to be understood. And we need to dig deeper to get at its roots.

Students of color who led the charge to retire the Rebel name experience the effects of their racial background every day. If you are in a family that includes racial “minorities,” you already know this.

Young people of color return home at the end of the day — every day — with stories about daily affronts like these: “I was followed in the store today,” “they asked me where I was really from,” “people yelled the ‘n’ word at me out of their car window,” “the police stopped me to ask what I was doing in my own neighborhood,” “the librarian only kicked the black and brown kids out of the library for talking,” “a woman gripped her purse as I walked by,” “the owner wouldn’t rent me the apartment – said the woman downstairs wouldn’t like it.”

The data indicate there are significant racial disparities in two of South Burlington’s most central institutions — schools and policing.

I don’t blame those who are unaware of the daily stresses of racism. We live segregated lives in America and here in Vermont, too. But because of that, it is hard for white people to see how racial animosity and bias traumatize members of our community.

As young people speak about the ways their skin color marks them for treatment they don’t deserve, imagine walking a mile or two in their shoes. If that is not enough, perhaps some data will help.

The data indicate there are significant racial disparities in two of South Burlington’s most central institutions — schools and policing. These institutions stand out because they have the ability to promote community cohesion or fracture. Moreover, what happens there is a lens into race relations elsewhere — in the workplace, in stores, and on the street.

The data show, for example, that non-Caucasian South Burlington students are suspended at a higher rate than white students. This problem exists across the country, of course, including in neighboring Burlington. The disparity is often due to negative assumptions about kids of color. We hear stories from kids of all racial backgrounds that kids of color get harsher treatment than white students in our schools for the same infraction.

As for policing, the data show that in South Burlington, black drivers are stopped at a rate that substantially exceeds their driving population share. And, from 2013-15, black drivers were seven times more likely to be searched, once stopped, than white drivers. Perhaps, you say to yourself, “They must have been doing something wrong.” The data don’t support that assumption. Searches of black drivers were less, not more, likely to result in contraband being found than searches of white drivers.

These data highlight the everyday lived racial disparities in South Burlington and throughout Vermont.

The resulting hurt experienced by kids of color is a motor force behind the quest to change the Rebel name. It is as much about the present as it is the past. The daily invisible stressors that lead to feelings of insult and exclusion created by a school team name conjure memories of dehumanization.

Those who are white can afford to ignore the issue altogether. But that comes at the cost of being a divided community. My hope is that we can move forward toward a future when no child will feel diminished by things like a school mascot, whether intentional or not.

Our humanity as a community shines most brightly when we are concerned about others beyond our circle.

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