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Vermont Congressman Holds Panel Discussion On Racial Bias, Police Reform

Congressman Peter Welch
Congressman Peter Welch

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch held a virtual panel discussion this week with the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and Vermont racial justice advocates about systemic racial bias and efforts to move toward equity.
Democratic Congressman-at-large Peter Welch began the discussion noting that rural and predominantly white Vermont has made some strides in supporting civil rights.  “We’re very proud of many things including Alexander Twilight who was the first African-American to graduate from college. But we know that the systemic imposition of suffering on the basis of the color of a person’s skin is what we have to root out.”

Congressional Black Caucus chair California Rep. Karen Bass was on Joe Biden’s short list for the ticket. She is a key sponsor of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which sets out a number of reforms.  “The standards to prosecute an officer is so high you can never prosecute them. The George Floyd Justice and Policing Act deals with each one of these issues. Also there are no standards for the 18,000 police departments around the country so the bill calls for that as well. The bill provides grants to communities to re-envision policing, re-envision public safety. When people say defund the police I say re-fund the communities.”

Vermont Racial Equity Director Xusana Davis is the first person to fill that position, created by Republican Governor Phil Scott in 2019.  Davis says a lot of work is being done in the legislature, administration and communities regarding policing policy.  “Some of the things that have been passed in our state Legislature in the last couple of months include a lot of things around police reform: use of force policies, body worn cameras, race data collection and reporting which is so key for Vermont. At the state level I think that we’ve come a long way in terms of fair and impartial policing but at the municipal level we still have a long way to go.”

Former state Legislator Kesha Ram is running for state Senate and if successful would be the first woman of color to serve in that chamber. She noted some recent incidents that highlight lingering racial bias in the state.  “A source of shame for Vermonters is that the one Black woman in the House in Vermont, Kiah Morris from Bennington, was so threatened, harassed and experienced so much violence and hostility that she resigned her position. And in many ways it was that the police department failed to take the threat seriously, failed to investigate.  I think it shook people from their slumber that Vermont is such a peaceful and immune simply because we’re homogenous.”

Welch asked panelists how the mechanisms of systemic racism are changing and Representative Bass said the problem is education.  “Each one of our systems you can look at and you can trace the historic discrimination in those institutions. So when you look at it from a structural perspective you should be able to be more objective.”

Both Bass and Davis said part of the problem is that society tends to reduce racism to the individual act obfuscating the bigger systemic problem. Xusana Davis: “Stop dwelling on the question of am I racist or was that action racist or was that comment racist? Instead ask yourself how much racism do I tolerate in my day-to-day life? It’s a better measure. The fact is that we tacitly approve of a certain degree of racism every day. And so asking ourselves how much racism we’re allowing to get past us every day is a much better measure of what impact we’re really having.”