At a forum last week in the Northeast Kingdom, a Vermont state representative took the floor to express pride in his racial identity.
“I’m really quite proud to be white,” Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, told a crowd that was largely, if not entirely, white. “And I don’t think too many people want to say that, but I’m glad I am.”
Smith made the comments during the latest in a series of meetings held around the state to discuss “critical race theory” and oppose discussion of structural racism in public schools. Video of the event, held last Friday in Brighton, was captured by NEK-TV and posted to YouTube.
In an interview with VTDigger on Thursday, Smith stood by his earlier comments — and disputed the existence of white privilege.
“I have been listening to people complain that being white is not a good thing to be anymore. And I'm just to the point where I'm tired of hearing it,” he said. “I was born white, and I don’t consider it a privilege to be white. But I'm proud to be white. Just like any African American man, woman or child should be proud to be Black. I don’t think enough people say that.”
Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex/Orleans, helped organize Friday’s event and other similar gatherings. In an interview with VTDigger, he defended Smith’s comments.
“I think everybody should be proud of everything that they are,” Ingalls said. “You should be proud that you're white, and you should be proud if you're Black. You should be proud of any skin color that you'd like.”
Events such as Friday’s are part of a nationwide push by conservative activists to ban discussion of race and racism in school curricula.
The event in Brighton included other notable exchanges.
Immediately after Smith’s comments — about an hour into the recording of the meeting — a white man stood up in front of the seated crowd and said, “Anybody in this room know who the first slave traders were? They were colored people.”
A voice from the crowd responded, “Yes they were.”
The man continued, “They rounded them up, sold them. They come to the United States to work.”
He then spoke of Vermont’s contributions to the Civil War and made the historically inaccurate statement, “Ninety-nine percent of the colored people stayed in the South because they weren’t that bad treated.”
The man concluded his speech, “So please don’t tell me I’m a racist. I’m not.”
Many in the room applauded, including Ingalls, who stood at the front.
What’s debated as “critical race theory” in the context of K-12 schools is often mislabeled, or misused, as a catch-all term in the cultural conflict over school materials.
The American Bar Association describes critical race theory as “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy.” It analyzes how racism is embedded in large social institutions, regardless of acts by any singular person.
A report this month by the Brookings Institution found that eight states have passed legislation to limit how teachers can discuss race or racism in schools, but Idaho is the only state that explicitly names critical race theory in its law.
These laws generally ban any discussion in schools that includes concepts of “bias, privilege, discrimination and opression,” the report said.
Friday’s meeting took place within the North Country Supervisory Union. The district’s superintendent, John Castle, attended. He later told VTDigger that state officials “really made unsubstantiated accusations about what things were happening in our schools.”
Castle, as well as some teachers who were in the room, pushed back at points in the meeting to dispute what was said, and to say they did not teach critical race theory.
“There was a very strong contingent of people there that really have great concerns about the message that was being promoted,” Castle said in the interview.
“I can assure you, we are not teaching critical race theory as an academic discipline. It's just too complicated for students in a K-12 environment,” Castle said. “We do teach about issues of race, and we do teach about inclusion, and issues of diversity and equity.”
Smith, the Derby state representative, said in an interview, “I know John Castle said that it is not being teached in the classroom. But perhaps — he is probably correct. Perhaps CRT is not being taught in the classroom. But if it comes up, it is talked about.”
When asked directly how race should be discussed in the classroom, Smith responded, “I don't think they need to talk about race in the classroom, unless it comes up.”
He said whenever race comes up in schools, parents should be involved.
“If a little white kid in the school calls a Black kid the n-word, there's a concern that needs to be brought to the table with the parent, and I don’t think that happens a lot,” he said.
Smith also said he doesn’t like the term “anti-racist.”
“You’re either racist or you’re not racist. You don't need to be taught to be anti-racist ... I'm against racism. I am against racism,” Smith said. “But I don't need to be taught it. I was brought up that way.”