This commentary is by Tom McKone of Montpelier, a former English teacher, principal and library administrator.
Slavery was legal on American soil for over 240 years, from the early days of the colonies, through the birth of the United States, until the end of the Civil War. Before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, it was also constitutional. For another century after that, segregation and racist Jim Crow laws were legal, if not constitutional.
Today, in Vermont and across the United States, hate speech — which is an offspring of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow — is still legal and deemed constitutional. Allowing hate speech in our day is just as wrong as allowing slavery and segregation was in the past. It tramples the human rights of Black Americans and other people of color, migrants, religious minorities, the LGBTQ community, and women. It makes a mockery of our claims to be a free and open democratic society. Why do we continue to put up with it?
In this commentary, I am focusing on racism; however, white extremists use hate speech to target many groups they consider threats. In this limited space, I can’t address all the groups that are targeted and harmed by them. Misogyny is a significant issue that I am not covering.
Only two weeks ago, we had a third Black Vermont woman give up a public position because of racist attacks. Hartford Selectboard member Alicia Barrow resigned after being victim to racial slurs and death threats. Last year, Tabitha Moore, who was president of the Rutland chapter of the NAACP, resigned that position and said she planned to move out of her Wallingford home because of ongoing racial harassment and threats. In a nationally publicized 2018 case, Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris resigned from the Legislature after numerous threats, including emails that Attorney General TJ Donovan said were “clearly racist and extremely offensive” but did not rise to the legal level of “true threat.”
The tactics are modernized, but the strategy for retaining white dominance is the same used during slavery, segregation and other ugly parts of our history: to keep Black and brown people “in their place.” Emma Cotton’s current Digger article, “As women of color leave Rutland and Bennington counties, Vermonters reckon with racism,” develops this situation more thoroughly.
How long will we allow white extremists to harass Black Americans to the point where they sometimes aren’t safe in their homes and have to quit their jobs or elected offices to protect themselves and their families? Is Vermont degenerating into the post-Civil War South, where Blacks who excelled or stepped out of line were terrorized into submission?
While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly, legislatures and courts have created some limitations, like fraud, libel, slander, obscenity and child pornography. In the name of racial justice, we need another exception: hate speech.
Europe guarantees free speech, but outlaws hate speech. American courts in most cases require “imminent threat of bodily harm” as a cause for limiting hate speech. Why are only imminent threats enough to justify protecting people? What about the long-term harm?
With fraud, libel, slander, obscenity and child pornography, courts do not require or even consider imminent harm; in all those cases, it is clearly the long-term and permanent harm that people need to be protected from. The same is true of hate speech: The harm lies primarily in the long-term. Hate speech is violence, just as much as a gun or knife is. If it leads to either the immediate or long-term loss of a person’s civil rights, it should be illegal.
Structural racism — the pervasive ways in which our country favors white people and puts everyone else at a disadvantage — is ubiquitous and complex, sometimes making it difficult to see and deal with. Here, however, we have a clear form of embedded racism that we can do something about.
Laws and policies that permit hate speech against Blacks and other people of color are structural racism. Today’s white extremists are cut from the same cloth as the people who owned slaves, lynched Black people, forced Black people to the back of the bus and the back of everything else, and made sure Blacks couldn’t live freely. To build a free, open and equitable society, it is our responsibility to stop them.
The FBI and National Security Agency have called white extremist groups a great threat to our national security, and the Biden administration has initiated a vigorous response to that threat. In Vermont, we need to fight hate, racism and white extremists in every way we can and at every level — in our state government, our cities and towns, in our community organizations and in our personal lives.
The Vermont Legislature should act to protect the civil rights of all Vermonters by banning hate speech. We need to prove that, even though we are one of the whitest states, we aren’t a free and open democracy for only white people. Anything less diminishes us all.