Leadership matters when it comes to addressing racism

Flying the Black Lives Matter Flag

February is Black History Month. This observance began in 1976 to remember the important contributions of African Americans throughout our nation’s history.  In Vermont, black history month has served as an opportunity to celebrate our role with the Underground Railroad, and as the first state to outlaw adult slavery. But, as one of the whitest states in the nation, we could better use this month to begin a serious effort to consider how we could make Vermont a more welcoming place for people of color today.

In Vermont, we like to think of ourselves as open and welcoming, but any person of color here can tell you that not every Vermonter feels that way.  Indeed, just a few weeks ago, in my town, a father reached out to the community to let us know that his young daughter was being harassed by a teenage boy who leaned out of the window of a car to yell – “brown people don’t belong in this country. Get out!” After it happened the second time, he became concerned for his daughter’s safety and he asked for help to help identify the offending teen.

Incidents like these are all too common everywhere – even here. According to the FBI, the numbers of hate crime incidents reported to law enforcement, have surged after many years of being in decline. Reported hate crimes in Vermont doubled from last year.

And it’s no wonder. Leaders have the power to inspire us to be our best selves – or they can appeal to our worst.

When political leaders, like the President, use foul language to describe the home countries of immigrants of color, and dismiss all Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, it’s not surprising that a teenager in Vermont might feel empowered to harass someone just for the color of their skin. That means it is more important than ever for local and state leaders to speak out and acknowledge the problems of racism.

I was proud when the Montpelier School Board, in a unanimous decision, allowed the high school to fly the Black Lives Matter flag for the month of February, in honor of Black History Month. The stated intention of the student–led Racial Justice Alliance was to “…do more to raise our predominantly white community’s collective consciousness to better recognize white privilege and implicit bias.”

Growing up in a white liberal family, I remember being told that “we don’t see color – we just see people.” Now I understand that color-blindness is one of the many privileges of being white. When we profess not to see race, we discount the experience of people of color. But, race does matter, both because racism continues to exist, and also because race, like ethnicity, is an important part of an individual’s identity.

As Vermont becomes more diverse, we must face up to the systemic racism that still exists in our communities. We need to recognize that it is not just teenagers who are acting as bullies, but bias exists in our schools, in our employment offices, in our criminal justice system and even in the halls of government.

The first step to end systemic racism is to admit that it exists. And if it takes a flag to get our attention, so be it.