Kesha Ram: Vermont’s lack of racial diversity is a retention problem, not a recruitment problem

Editor's note: This commentary is by Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, who is the first woman of color to serve in the Vermont state Senate. She is the co-chair of the Vermont Social Equity Caucus. 

Jan. 6 began with historic election results in Georgia and my own swearing-in to the Vermont state Senate. By the afternoon, however, it became an infamous day in American history, with the unfolding insurrection in the U.S. Capitol incited by our outgoing president. The impunity for the rioters, wrapped in Confederate flags and neo-Nazi tattoos, with many off-duty law enforcement and military personnel among them, laid bare once again the differential treatment Black and white residents experience when they challenge America’s centers of power. In the aftermath of the attack, Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush called Trump the “white supremacist in chief” over the booing of her Republican colleagues. 

Sometimes we like to think we’re far away from that kind of white supremacy culture and rhetoric in Vermont. We gave President-elect Joe Biden and Vice Present-elect Kamala Harris their largest margin of victory of any state in the nation, and we reach back in our history to highlight an early rejection of slavery in our Constitution. From skits on "Saturday Night Live" to our own common refrains, we chalk up our predominant whiteness to a self-perpetuating cycle of brown and Black people not wanting to come here, because they don’t see themselves reflected in our communities. This leads many to believe that our problem lies in simply broadcasting to a more diverse population that we are welcoming and accepting. 

This is a misconception about Vermont’s painful history and persistent problems, however. Our lack of diversity is not a problem of recruitment. Vermont, or Ndakinna as it was previously called, has been the home of the Abenaki people for centuries before white settlement. Today, our dairy farms and apple orchards are largely maintained by Latinx and Jamaican workers who live in the shadows, often in substandard housing and working conditions. Overall, 90% of Vermont’s population growth over the last decade has come from the in-migration of Black, Indigenous, and people of color-identifying (BIPOC) residents, largely from refugee resettlement and the pull of higher education and large institutional employers. Many are drawn to our open spaces, working lands, and bustling downtowns and village centers.

Unfortunately, our institutions and communities often fail them after they arrive -- or even if they’ve grown up here. Take the well-documented disparities in Vermont’s health care, housing, and policing. According to Department of Health data, Black Vermonters had up to 10 times the rate of Covid-19 infection over white Vermonters during the pandemic. Vermont has one of the highest homeownership gaps between Black and white residents in the country, with 72% of white households and just 21% of Black households owning their homes. 

Black Vermonters make up about 1% of the overall state population but 9% of the prison population, one of the greatest incarceration disparities in the country. A 2018 UVM study found that Black and Hispanic Vermonters are up to 3.9 times more likely to be searched by police than white Vermonters. These disparities didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. They were created by public policies, historical and contemporary, on national and state levels, as well as by perpetuated biases in who is deserving of health care, housing, public safety, and other supports.

We know what the issues are, and we need to identify policies that would work better. We see blips of demographic data that paint an alarming picture, but we have just begun to scratch the surface. We have been through a pandemic and violent insurrection without a robust, statewide emergency information system that deploys culturally relevant translation in popular languages spoken in Vermont’s immigrant households. Financial and lending institutions have left BIPOC Vermonters at the back of the line, with very little access to capital to start businesses and buy homes.

Our public policy efforts to retain Vermont’s racial diversity will not go far without a change in everyday attitudes that exclude and exhaust BIPOC Vermonters. By framing the issue as one of recruitment, we place the responsibility for community revitalization on BIPOC arrivals -- to contribute to our economy and societal fabric without regard to the emotional toll it may take. That negates our collective responsibility to build a community where BIPOC families feel safe and valued. We are currently failing to meet that responsibility. Three prominent Black women in Vermont have now left leadership roles due to racist harassment and threats of violence. Our only remaining Black woman in elected office, Rachel Edens in Hartford, had not been appointed for even a week when she faced threats on social media.

Eradicating racism means challenging white colleagues and institutions when they fail to see BIPOC Vermonters in their humanity. This problem is not just about who is in the White House. It involves starting a never-ending journey of self-reflection and humility. As we turn the page in our country, let us begin this journey again.

The author wishes to acknowledge her oversight that the original version of this column did not include Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower and Rutland Area NAACP Chapter President Mia Schultz as some of the few Black women still in local government and leadership roles, and to apologize for this omission.

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