Crime and Justice

Racial Justice Alliance creates website for tracking progress, disparities

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Statistics have shown that people of color in Vermont — particularly Black residents — are more likely to be stopped and searched by police than people in other demographic groups.

They’ve shown that Hispanic and Latino Vermonters have the highest unemployment rate of any group, that people of color are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and that students of color are more likely to report behavioral risk factors such as substance use.

The Racial Justice Alliance has gathered those statistics into one place: a new website with a series of data dashboards on racial and ethnic data for criminal justice, housing, health and more. 

Mark Hughes, coordinator for the alliance, said the site is designed to provide perspective on the impacts of systemic racism on communities of color and to measure the progress, or lack of it, on narrowing disparities. “That's really where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

The alliance’s work on compiling racial data kicked off in 2019, when the website outlined police department-level data on racial disparities in traffic stops. More than five years of data collected by the state and analyzed by University of Vermont researchers has revealed that police officers are more likely to stop Vermonters of color, particularly Black Vermonters, than other drivers. 

Hughes said the state mandate for departments to collect that data only went so far because of the shortcomings of how it was being reported at a statewide level. “There's statutory mandates for the data to be collected. The question is who's doing what,” he said.

“We were highly interested [in] getting an understanding of the ability to be able to provide some type of comparative, or some type of training analysis, on those data,” he said. 

But the data available was out-of-date, inconsistent and often missing important variables. Though the Racial Justice Alliance dashboard has improved, the quality of the underlying data “sadly has not changed,” Hughes said. “With the manner in which the Crime Research Group has been reporting out on those data, we still see those same deficiencies.”

The latest iteration of RJA’s analysis allows visitors to see the police-stop disparities on a map, providing an overview at a regional level. 

The shortcomings in data collection extend to other aspects of systemic racism that the alliance has tried to study. In several instances, Hughes and his colleagues found data available for other states that they would like to study in Vermont, too, but couldn’t find something comparable here.

“We have every indication that Vermont lags in the collection of racially disaggregated data,” he said.

One example of absent data: home ownership and asset ownership by race in Vermont. National data shows that white people have an average net worth seven times the net worth of Black people and five times that of Hispanic people.

But that data isn’t available at a state level for Vermont, although the alliance has collected data on renter- versus owner-occupied housing in its new site. Black, Asian and Native American Vermonters are more likely than other demographic groups to live in rental units.

Lack of data collection also proved a challenge at the beginning of the pandemic. Vermont started publishing pandemic-related racial and ethnic data only in May 2020, after advocates pushed for it to do so.

“Black and brown folks were being affected at much higher rates in places across the United States from Louisiana to Michigan,” Hughes said. “So, the disparities that were discovered on race here in (Vermont), it was predictable that these disparities would exist.”

That delay may have affected the way the Vermont Department of Health responded to the pandemic, Hughes said.

“As a result of the unavailability of the data, or perhaps the unwillingness to act upon it, we failed to implement testing facilities in our communities of color across the state,” he said. “So we didn't know what we didn't know, which resulted in two major outbreaks in the North End (of Burlington), as well as in Winooski.”

Racial disparities persist in Covid-19 cases and persist in the vaccination rate for Vermonters of color, the data shows. 

Hughes said it’s important for policymakers to use data to measure their progress and the impact of the policies they’re enacting and ensure that data collection on policy is enforced from the beginning of its rollout.

“We know that there are certain systems that are consistently producing disparities, Black and brown folks are being underserved, and, of course, we want to be able to collect data that represents that,” he said. “In some cases, unfortunately, we're having to make policy decisions based upon data that’s from out of state.”

Vermont also needs to devote resources to gathering data that captures the richness and complexity of racial and ethnic identity in Vermont, even though people of color form a small percentage of the population, he said.

Many national datasets leave off racial data for Vermont, or lump different categories together because of the small size of the population. The American Community Survey, for example, has a large margin of error for Vermont’s Asian and multiracial communities.

“The small number of Black and brown folks in this state is really all the more reason why this data is so vitally important,” he said. “It's not just about not having representation. It's about not having power when you're in smaller numbers.”

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Erin Petenko

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