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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  • Skyler Bailey

    You are saying that real individual instances of injustice occur, several of which constitute infractions of state and federal law, but that instead of addressing those injustices on an individual basis, or even addressing them at all, a school mascot should be changed to bring justice? Now do you see how silly that sounds?

    I want to be clear that I am not and never have been a South Burlingtonian, nor am I particularly concerned one way or the other with South Burlington’s mascot.

    • Julie Hansen

      No, she is not suggesting that. She is suggesting that the arguments around the use or non-use of the name reflect racial misunderstandings that play out on a larger tapestry for people of color. Reducing it to “silly” reflects another misunderstanding of the experiences people of color face every day. We can all choose to work toward awareness and unity or ignorance and division.

    • John Snell

      I don’t think that is what is being said. Rather I’m reading that it is important to deal with racism on many levels and that the symbols that have we have lived with so long, like the mascot, are powerful, both as painful, daily reminders of injustice and as indicators that many of us have the privilege to ignore them.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      Well it’s obvious that you are not concerned with the mascot…that’s the problem! The silly part is the fact that you don’t recognize how this issue fits into the big picture. Symbols and code still exist everywhere in our society that have much more meaning and evoke more pain than you realize. What’s your expertise on this issue anyway?The individual instances are being addressed by the way.

    • Richard Wasserman

      Some years ago, under pressure from a small number of citizens, CVU abandoned the Crusaders mascot and became the Redhawks. There had been no religious bias at the school, as far as I know. Most CVU students and parents were completely unaware of the resurgence of antisemitism and the slaughtering of European Jews that occurred during the Crusades, which were very much an anti-Muslim effort. Mascots and their names matter if they are offensive to minority ethnic, religious, or racial members of a community of taxpayers and students. Of course, changing the mascot name doesn’t solve the problem of bias, but that’s no reason not to do it.

      • Cheryl Ganley

        Redhalk is no better as it refers to American Indians or even worse a gun. Even with change someone can and still will be offended.

    • Becky Bowen

      Funny. I had the exact opposite impression of the report. That it addressed systemic racism that white people willfully ignore.

    • John Klar

      The school name does not signify “feelings of insult and exclusion” that “conjure memories of dehumanization” to the people who have attended the school, does it? The term “rebel” does not exclusively refer to southern slavery: on the contrary, it has a long history of use to refer to someone of any race as rebellious (even “without a cause”). By retroactively labeling the term as racist simply because it “feels that way” to a group of people provokes a double backlash: it justifies feelings of exclusion and racism that were never inherent in the name; it causes present and future racial resentment by community members who feel much ado is being made about nothing, or worse that they are being labeled racist when they aren’t. The school name was never created to embrace racist ideology: “changing” the name suggests an admission that it was, and that this Vermont community is somehow tied to southern plantation owners of the 19th century. Too bad they hadn’t named the team “The Mutineers” — but who knew?

    • Peter Langella

      I’m afraid you missed the author’s point, Skyler. She wants it all to change: the mascot, the microagressions, the policing practices, etc. She is using the mascot issue as a lens through which to view the larger situation and contribute to the larger conversation.

    • Skyler Bailey

      A common thread seems to exist in responses to my original post, and I would like to make some things clear.

      Slavery was never legal in Vermont. Vermont outlawed slavery in Article 1 of our Constitution of 1777. It was literally the first thing Vermont did. Further laws were made to enforce the ban when a very small number of slave-holders did not abide by the constitution. The State of Vermont has no history of legal slavery.

      Vermont was a hotbed of early radical abolitionism. Vermont religious and political groups, including the Liberty Party, were among the earliest and most vocal abolitionist groups in the country. Vermont flouted fugitive slave laws, with the Vermont Supreme Court Justice Theophilus Harrington famously refusing in 1804 to return an escaped slave without “a bill of sale signed by God Almighty Himself.”

      The first African American to graduate from college in the western hemisphere graduated from Middlebury College in 1823. He went on to run a boarding school, and was elected (by his predominantly white neighbors) to the Vermont legislature. He was the first black man to hold public office in North America, three decades before the south was compelled by force of arms to give up its most wicked institution.

      Fully twenty percent of Vermont’s male population served in the war to end slavery, and Vermont lost a higher proportion of our population in the Civil War than any northern state. It is also worth noting that the 54th Massachusetts, famous for being the first black regiment to see combat, contained 66 Vermonters.

      Vermont has no history of legal slavery. Vermont certainly has no cause to sympathize with, or name school mascots after anything dealing with the Confederacy. Vermont has quite simply the best record of institutional race-relations anywhere in the western hemisphere, and did more to put down the southern rebellion than anyone else. Vermonters have cause to be proud of their history.

      Has it been perfect? No, of course not. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But as someone who has lived in the south, I can tell you that the majority of white northerners have literally no idea what racism looks like, nor any idea what living in a broadly multi-racial community means. Racism in the south is not a theory. It is not micro-aggressions. Diversity is not two tribes trying to bridge a great historical divide. Race-relations are, quite simply…just relations; friendly interactions between human beings on a daily basis who are coworkers, employers, and old friends. It is not something stressful or fraught with deep historical implications, despite the very real history of oppression, discrimination and slavery that exists there.

      Vermonters: be nice to each other. Get over yourselves. Change the mascot or not, but know that the South Burlington Rebels name had nothing to do with slavery, nothing to do with the Confederacy, and the decision isn’t a referendum on people of color.

  • bobstannard

    I would highly recommend that you watch “Divided by Diversity”; a new documentary film produce by Duane Carleton. Mr. Carleton is the man who made the film on the murder of golf pro, Sarah Hunter. His latest film tackles racism in Vermont and it’s a powerful piece of work. I don’t want to give away the film, but will say in the end it’s the kids of color who show true character.

  • Adam Maxwell

    Systemic racism exists and racist sports mascots are certainly vestiges of this. But in this instance can’t we have a ligh-hearted solution? Can we ask George Lucas to permit the use of an X-wing fighter, or Luke Skywalker?! #BestRebelsEver

  • Spencer Putnam`

    With repeated called-in death and bomb threats the situation in South Burlington has gotten really ugly. These events belie any claims by opponents of the Rebel name change that the issue is not race related.

    • Matt Young

      Still feel the same way Spencer?

  • Steve Baker

    How does this play out when you have a “nonminority” young man threatening an entire school district?
    How about we get rid of all of the crazy commissions, focus groups, race baiting organizations and focus on “equal justice under the law. We should be pushing for blind justice for everyone.