Politics

The Deeper Dig: Xusana Davis on race, belonging and ‘Vermontiness’

Xusana Davis
Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, testifies at the Statehouse in February 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

A recent report from Vermont’s Office of Racial Equity describes widespread disparities in how people of color are treated in the state. 

Authored by Xusana Davis, the state’s first director of racial equity, the report describes how candidates or people in public office were threatened or harassed. It details racial disparities in traffic stop data. And it finds minorities are underrepresented and underpaid in certain state government roles. 

Davis discusses how people of color in Vermont, as in the rest of the country, face disproportionate health impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic. But the global crisis has also deepened what she describes as “out-of-state ‘xenophobia,’” a problematic notion of who is a “real Vermonter” that remains a key barrier to achieving equity.

On this week’s podcast, Davis talks to VTDigger’s Amanda Gokee about her findings. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.


Amanda Gokee: One of the elements of the report is this photograph that you included, and it pictures the back of a car with a message written in the dust of the car’s rear window. The message reads, “We live in Vermont/waiting on new plates,” as sort of an explanation of why that car had out of state plates. This was a picture that you took and decided to use in the report. How did you come across this scene, and what about it stuck out to you?

Xusana Davis: I guess it was spring or summertime, so I was probably going out for some fresh air in between legislative testimonies or something like that. I don’t quite remember the details of that. But I do remember leaving my home and passing by my neighbor’s car and seeing that message. And I was so struck, I had to stop and photograph it, of course being careful not to include any identifying features. 

But I was so sad and I was so angry on their behalf. These are people who are actually white. They are from another New England state. And so they likely have more in common with their new neighbors in Vermont than people might realize. But it says a lot about the atmosphere that we’ve created in this state, where even people who demographically appear very similar and regionally come from a similar place still feel like they’re at risk of being, at best, harassed, and at worst, harmed, just for the fact that they don’t have local plates. It was kind of painful to see. Because it showed that it wasn’t just people of color from out of state, or it wasn’t just young people. It was the idea that you could be anyone from anywhere, and if your plate doesn’t say Vermont, then you might be in trouble.

Amanda Gokee: Do you think there is something to be learned by those who are perhaps experiencing this type of xenophobia for the first time?

Xusana Davis: No, I don’t. I think there’s something to be learned by the people perpetuating it.

Amanda Gokee: What do you think that that lesson is?

Xusana Davis: That lesson is, can you not? I think that the lesson is that we have to be able to face reality, and we have to make our outward claims match our behavior. So on the one hand, we say that we are inclusive and welcoming and friendly, and we have a small-town vibe across the state that makes us unique, and that we are neighborly. And yet those are truths that I know exist, but that are not borne out in our behaviors. Our community and our behaviors and our messaging have created a very common narrative for people from out of state that we don’t belong, that we never will belong. 

I think that’s more a lesson for people who are perpetuating that rather than for people who are on the receiving end of it. Because we’re just here, we’re just living, we’re existing in communities that we’ve proactively chosen to be part of. We want to be here, and we want to make it better, and we want to contribute to the fabric of the community. And yet, to have to have that sense of fear or apprehension, I think, says a lot about how strong this narrative has gotten in the state.

Amanda Gokee: As someone who’s also a newcomer to the state, what was it like getting established in a new life here and having the pandemic hit?

Xusana Davis: Getting adjusted to life in Vermont was just fine. It resembled other periods of life when I lived in suburban/rural areas. What I did not expect, of course, was Covid-19 to hit six months after I got here. And so for me, just like for millions of other people, it changed how I worked, where I worked, when I worked, and what I focus that work on — but actually, it really didn’t change the focus of the work that much. Because so many of the disparities that we saw within and resulting from Covid-19 really were emblematic of broader systemic inequities. So all it really did was solidify for us that we needed to tackle those upstream factors. 

I’ll just give one example. It is considered well-known information that communities of color in the United States tend to be disproportionately more vulnerable to illnesses like Covid-19 due to their higher rates of underlying conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma. A lot of people would stop there and assume that communities of color have those conditions, because we’re just, I don’t know, more sickly or something. But in reality, so much of that is driven by epigenetic factors. That is to say, how we live and where we live. 

So for example, we know that the highest rate of asthma in the country for many years was in Harlem. Why? Because that’s where New York City parked all of its buses at night. So all of those children, Black and brown children, were breathing toxic air. We know that Latinos in the U.S. are 165% more likely to live in counties that have unhealthy ppm — that’s fine particulate matter, dirty air basically — and 51% more likely to live in a county that has unhealthy levels of ozone. 

All of these things add up to a picture that shows that it’s bigger structural issues that created the downstream disparities in Covid-19. So the equity work we were doing in Vermont perhaps shifted gears a little bit in terms of speed and the need to put out fires. But in reality, it didn’t really change the focus, because the pandemic only highlighted existing problems that needed to be addressed.

Amanda Gokee: How do you see these two ideas — of belonging on one hand, and race on the other — playing out in the state of Vermont? What do you see as the relationship between the two of them?

Xusana Davis: What’s most interesting to me is that when we think about a typical Vermonter, it is often the case that people envision somebody who may be white. Oftentimes, people who are white who maybe are born and raised in Vermont, they’ll say, “I’m a native Vermonter.” And I always think, oh, you’re Abenaki? Because if you’re really a native Vermonter, then you’re probably indigenous to the land. But if that’s not the case, then what does that say about the way that we use language, the way that we think about being native to a place? The way that we think about ownership, not just of the physical land, but also of the culture and what it means to be from there? 

So when I think about the intersection of race and belonging, and “Vermontiness,” I’m thinking about all of those things — and the way that the message around who’s a real Vermonter circulates so much around whiteness and proximity to whiteness, as opposed to being rooted in the recognition that this remains unceded land, and that we all exist on this territory as a result of force, biological warfare, and the manipulation of laws that keeps some people buoyed by the system and others oppressed by it. So when it comes to a sense of belonging, I think we really have to reckon with that. 

Then I think it’s really important to acknowledge another truth, which is that in the state of Vermont, just like in the rest of the country, the millennial and Gen Z generations are the two most racially diverse cohorts in the state’s history and in the nation’s history. So as we think about Vermont and we think about its future, we’ve got to remember that we’re not just planning for who’s already here — we’re planning for who’s going to be here. And increasingly, that population is going to be more culturally diverse. 

So when we think about who is a real Vermonter, or who belongs, or what does it mean to be from Vermont, that picture will continue to change in the future. And that’s not something that we have to brace ourselves for. It’s not like it’s something about which to be concerned. It’s great. But how many people are out there decrying it because they think that somehow any deviation from what they see as a norm is somehow problematic, as opposed to recognizing that this is the natural path that society is taking throughout the country, throughout the world, really. And we can either choose to dig our heels in out of some sense of, I don’t know, romanticized traditionalism, or we can acknowledge that our future is going to be bigger and brighter the more inclusive we are.

Amanda Gokee: That reminds me of an interview that you gave to VTDigger about a year and a half ago now. You mentioned seeing Vermont as a place that was “excited for a demographic change.” I’m wondering, in light of the events of the past year and the xenophobia that this report highlights, do you still see this as holding true?

Xusana Davis: I do. And maybe it’s a bad analogy. But a lot of people have fears of, like, crash paranoia on planes, or shark attacks. And these are instances that really grip people’s minds, and they worry so much about them, but in reality, they rarely happen, right? You’re more likely to get hurt doing so many other regular things that we do every day. But I think it’s just the idea that even rare occurrences can leave big marks in our minds and stay with us. So when we think about a lot of the bigotry, the hate, and the just recalcitrant attitudes around the state, it can be inflated in our minds to look like it’s large opposition to progress. But in reality, I do see the state by and large as being very ready for inclusion, and there’s a big appetite for this work across the state. It’s just that sometimes the loud few can make it seem as if that’s not the case.

Amanda Gokee: I think one of the instances from the report that really stuck out to me were the folks running for office, or just motorists in the state, people who did experience harassment on the basis of race. Now that we know that some of these things are a problem in our state, where do we go from here?

Xusana Davis: I mean, we’ve always known, right? I think now people in the state are more willing to acknowledge it, or rather less able to continue denying it. 

To the question of where do we go … I’m optimistic about it. I think that there are a number of ways that we can handle this. Some organizations/communities/people will say, well, let’s do the bare minimum. Let’s meet federal requirements. Let’s, you know, do a couple of press statements, some low-hanging fruit. We’ll give a couple of thousand dollars to some brown kids for a scholarship. And then we’ll say that we’ve done equity. Congratulations. 

It’s certainly one way to do it. It’s very visible. It’s a very conspicuous way of dancing around an issue. But what really moves the needle is when you make the more difficult change. I think that for a lot of years, we have found it easy to make the easier change — the low-cost, no-cost things. But we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve exhausted that low-hanging fruit. 

We have to have a multi-sectoral approach to advancing equity. That means it can’t just be on the state — it has to be on localities as well, because so much of the landscape of discrimination in this country has rested on local law. For example, policing policy, education policy, zoning policy, land use and exclusion from land use. A lot of those things happen at the local level. And so while there are a lot of state solutions that can be had, it’s more often the case that you need a multifaceted approach. 

So local, state and federal involvement. It means community groups on the ground. It means corporations who are in the state who helped to shape the state’s culture. And perhaps most importantly, it means individuals, because all those other entities I named are just collections of individuals, their people. And so it really is everybody’s job. 

We should be doing things like revising arcane laws that have served as barriers to people. For example, if we know that certain restrictive housing covenants have led to exclusions of certain demographic groups from owning land historically, then we’ve got to revisit those policies. We’ve got to look at how that has shaped the landscape and residency patterns. If we know that language access is a big barrier for people in Vermont, particularly the immigrant and refugee populations, to achieving services, etc., then what are we doing to broaden translation and interpretation services? If we know that students of color, students on IEPs, students living with disabilities are more likely to experience oppressive disciplinary tactics in schools — what are we doing at the school level to make sure that these disparities don’t persist? 

Amanda Gokee: The importance and the distinction of what the state does versus what happens on a highly localized level — I think that’s such an interesting topic in terms of your role and the focus on equity in state government. I’m wondering, how does equity in state government connect to these broader issues with changing people’s attitudes, and issues like the xenophobia that’s described in the report? Is that within the scope of the work that you’re doing?

Xusana Davis: It is — it’s within the scope, it’s outside the scope, it’s, you know, swirling around the scope. This role took a lot of effort to put into place. It was the culmination of advocacy from community groups, from individuals with lived experience, legislators, people in the admin. It was a huge effort. And it was also the first time the role had been created. So I think about its mandate, I think about the details of the enabling legislation, and I think about the broader need. 

Of course we will remain in compliance with the enabling legislation. But more importantly, we’ve also got to look at what’s the broader need beyond the scope. Maybe we’re called to do more than what’s being asked of us. And so I see it less as just, how narrowly tailored can I interpret this law so that it fits squarely within the typical work of the state? 

Instead of anchoring the resources in the mandate, we’ve got to anchor the need, and then make sure that our mandate and our resources flex to meet that need. And I think that’s important, because if we think about how much equity can we get based on this little bit of what we’re willing to do, then what we’re doing is asking justice to conform to our willingness, instead of saying, “This is what would be just, and let’s expand our imagination so that we can meet that demand.” 

So I guess the really short answer is that so much of what needs to be done happens outside of state government. And so to some extent, we can serve as supportive partners and play a convening role and an encouraging role to other entities who also have responsibility in this work. Some of it happens by us or through us, and a lot of it doesn’t. But the broader goal is justice. And so I see this less about strictly adhering to swim lanes and more about how are we all going to get this done using our various toolboxes.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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