Kesha Ram: Weinberger and white neutrality: the great stumbling block to freedom

This commentary is by Kesha Ram, a Chittenden County state senator who was a member of Mayor Miro Weinberger’s 2012 transition team, and is a former employee in the Burlington Community & Economic Development Office.

On April 16, 1963, nearly 58 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned for exercising unlawful civil disobedience and penned what is now known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is one of the greatest treatises on race and racism in history, and it came to mind as I learned that Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger had removed the city’s director of racial equity, Tyeastia Green, from her oversight role in a landmark policing reform study.

Dr. King wrote the following from his prison cell to other religious leaders telling him to temper his fervent and law-breaking leadership in the civil rights movement: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” 

Weinberger has announced that he will replace Green with Darren Springer, the white male Director of the Burlington Electric Department. Weinberger cited the need for a department head who “has been neutral and separate” from the debates over police staffing levels. 

Weinberger’s words eerily echo King’s warning of the white moderate who favors the “absence of tension” over the “presence of justice,” a preference that prioritizes the maintenance of the status quo of institutional racism over the discomfort that is inherent in dismantling oppressive systems. 

While Springer is a thoughtful and respected energy leader, this change not only questions Green’s ability to be neutral, it installs someone who has little to no expertise in policing or racial justice. It is insulting to Green and to our community, and it can only leave us to presume that the decision gives comfort to those who are opposed to systemic change.

By questioning the neutrality of his only Black department head — and quite possibly the only Black department head in Burlington history — because of her lived experience, Weinberger has done more damage to Vermonters who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color and anti-racist efforts in Vermont than he may understand. While this has ripple effects beyond City Hall, we must begin by recognizing the personal and professional impact to Green herself. A piece of her humanity has been stolen in all of this, as happens to so many Black women in the public eye in this state. 

Green moved her family here for this job right as the pandemic began, and has done an incredibly admirable and unimpeachable job advancing racial equity in the Queen City through this health crisis and racial reckoning. She is a consummate professional, not in spite of her perspective, but because she can authentically articulate her values while holding space open for others to share theirs. When we can all speak our truths and see our shared humanity, that is where true justice is formed. 

The absence of tension, on the other hand, is the veneer of neutrality afforded to white men. This unquestioned assumption of neutrality has historically been weaponized to maintain a harmful reality that values some lives over others. It generates a “negative peace,” but not justice. 

Perhaps most disappointing of all is that Weinberger is trying to claim good intentions by removing Green from this role, arguing that this choice strengthens reform efforts and allows  her and her team in the Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging the freedom to engage as racial justice advocates. This accomplishes exactly what many of us have feared would enter our public discourse despite our best attempts otherwise: the idea that racial justice is a politically partisan issue and that someone is not neutral in their public leadership role if they are advancing it.

This will require any future Black, Indigenous, or people of color department head or city staff person working for Weinberger to equate objectivity with leaving their lived experience at the door. It also effectively removes anti-racist leadership as a performance indicator against which we should measure the professional success of all city officials, and instead shows we punish and demote those who make it a centerpiece of their professional priorities in an increasingly diverse community.

Taken together, this decision paints a bleak picture in Burlington — that the understanding of racial justice, coupled with lived experience as a Black woman, is a professional liability. 

During the campaign, Weinberger posited that he would lead on racial justice by treating it like the opioid crisis, with a focus on metrics to guide success. I take issue with this on many levels, not the least of which is the historic racism embedded in our opioid response, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument. Addiction is a disease, and you can’t properly manage it until you are able to understand it. I implore Mayor Weinberger to understand and publicly account for the harm he has caused to Tyeastia Green and to the movement to advance racial equity in Vermont.

Weinberger has torn the fabric of our societal progress toward justice. His choices have an impact beyond the borders of Burlington. He doesn’t have to take my word for it. I would again call upon the words of Dr. King in that fateful letter that carries new meaning today: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 


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