Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rep. Scott Beck, a Republican who represents St. Johnsbury in the Vermont House. He is on the Ways & Means Committee.
The police brutality that killed George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis has once again reminded a nation of its continued struggle to overcome racism and its troubled historical legacy of slavery.
I recently received correspondence from a young person from St. Johnsbury, a 2015 Academy graduate. She wants to make a difference and address racial injustice and white supremacy in St. Johnsbury.
I offer this response to her as an indicator of my feelings about racism and strategies that I believe might help to improve the racially charged environment that we again find ourselves embroiled in:
Glad to hear you are passionate about eliminating racial injustice, I am too. I think I would approach this from a slightly different angle.
Let me give you some background. I have lived a significant portion of my life in the Deep South (Mississippi, Forida, South Carolina, Virginia) of the United States. I attended a public high school (graduated in 1986) near Meridian, Mississippi, that had until 1974 been an all black high school during segregation. It was nearly half black and half white when I attended. Many of my teachers experienced segregation and the civil rights movement firsthand — opposed or supportive. You are fortunate to have attended St. Johnsbury Academy and witnessed their active efforts to educate a multi-racial student body. In my school, the administration ignored the topic and the students had to figure it out — certainly a different learning experience.
Some of those that I graduated high school with still harbor strong feelings of resentment toward non-whites. Others are as progressive on the topic of race as I am.
So, the problem is ultimately the group that still harbors racial resentment; they do this for many reasons, all rooted in ignorance, culture, fear and manipulation. These people are unfortunately not receptive to attempts to dismantle white supremacy by those that think differently. In fact, they thrive on it; it fuels their personal opinions and organizations they belong to, and justifies the conspiracy theories that they seek to spread.
Growing the numbers of those that are racially sensitive by default decreases the numbers of those that are not. There is nothing that forces someone to reconsider their position and beliefs more than to decrease the numbers of like-minded people.
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The positive truth is that the United States is becoming increasingly racially sensitive. We are a country of 320 million, even a small percentage (not saying it’s small) practicing racial intolerance is a lot of people. The best way to marginalize this group is to grow and spotlight the efforts, practices, and successes of those that are racially sensitive.
Certainly recent events in Minnesota and associated civil disobedience in other areas of the country have captured the media spotlight. While a necessary part of the national conversation on racial equity, civil disobedience will not have any impact unless the conversation continues after the violence ends. In just the last year the media has reported racially charged incidents in Vermont that are painful to acknowledge. I suppose this is a golden opportunity for people like you to cause positive change.
I would also consider a campaign to address all injustice. The sad and painful truth is that many that are discriminated against also discriminate on another level. Certain racial groups disproportionately discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Some that are racially sensitive, but economically advantaged, seek to manipulate political, education, and economic systems to retain their economic and academic advantages. These are just a few examples.
I hope that this helps. Please let me know how I can help you further the conversation and action in St. Johnsbury. St. Johnsbury is fortunate to have cultural and academic institutions that are already addressing much of what you are concerned about. Clearly though, new energy and passion is always welcomed and I appreciate your willingness to become involved.
Perhaps your greatest strength is your young age. Use St. Johnsbury as a learning experience to figure out what strategies and tactics effect lasting permanent change, and which don’t. Take those lessons and direct your energy to a larger audience: state, national, or global.