This week bore another unpleasant reminder that Vermont has a long way to go in combating racism in all forms and fostering safe and welcoming communities for people of color.
At a news conference in Bennington on Monday, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan revealed that no charges would be brought against the individuals accused of threatening former state representative Kiah Morris with racist hate speech. Over the past several years, Morris and her family have been the target of harassment both online and in person. The abuse became so severe last year that Morris ultimately resigned from the Legislature out of concern for the safety of her family and herself.
Donovan was unequivocal in his acknowledgment that Morris was a “victim of racial harassment,” but explained that the heinous acts were nonetheless protected under the First Amendment.
“I find the statements presented to us in this matter, while racist, insulting and degrading, are not subject to prosecution,” he said. “The Constitution does not permit us to prosecute racist speech because we find it offensive.”
Perhaps Donovan should have taken the hill. While our respect for the First Amendment goes without question, those who would hide behind it to harass others because of their race, religion, gender or sexual identity should face some sort of consequence. While Donovan’s words expressed regret at the circumstances, his decision not to push the case further sends a weak message that discourages people of color and could potentially embolden other racists.
This has been a frustrating outcome that has left a bitter taste in the mouth of Vermonters concerned about the escalation in racist rhetoric on the national stage and here at home.
“Our system candidly acknowledged that (Morris) faced horrific racism but we cannot legally hold the people responsible for perpetrating these acts accountable? That seems wrong. Because it is wrong,” said Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and president of the Rutland-area branch, Monday.
While Donovan said he was unable to bring criminal charges in this case, he did announce that his office would be instituting a new “Bias Incident Reporting System.” The system will help improve the sharing of bias incidents between law enforcement and prosecutors as well as give citizens “civil recourse when they are confronted by biases.”
It’s a step in the right direction, but we still have miles to go. Reporting bias incidents requires a better understanding of what bias looks like and how it manifests in our everyday lives. Success requires better training to recognize and confront bias in workplaces, schools and other venues where it is likely to occur. That means leaders within those institutions must be willing to create a safe and open environment in which that can happen.
However, for many white people, talking about bias and racism is a delicate, uncomfortable conversation. While it’s easy to decry blatant displays of hate, even the most aware white liberal will often opt out when they encounter racism in its subtler forms, like outdated language, pernicious stereotypes or offhand jokes.
But as Morris pointed out in her speech Monday, this is white people’s mess to clean up.
“It unfortunately needs to be said, I am not the cause of racism in our state. Our local, regional and state economic challenges cannot be laid at my feet. It is not on me to make everyone whole again. Nor is it my burden to help us all heal from this moment. That is your work today.”
If we’re going to meaningfully address racism in our communities, we must be honest with ourselves. We must bravely confront our own biases and the biases of others — be they family, friends, coworkers or classmates.
Confrontation requires a soft touch. The goal is to foster understanding and enlightenment, which cannot be accomplished through browbeating and shaming. Such behavior will only succeed in alienating people and shutting down productive dialogue.
That said, we don’t have time to endlessly coddle people until they finally get it. At a certain point, we must take a sterner tone. The resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism brought on by bigoted leaders on the right is a national disgrace that must be reckoned with.
Comments, like those made by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who in a New York Times interview last week questioned why white supremacy is offensive, must be confronted. And while the Republican Party’s near unanimous condemnation of King is noted, it rings hollow given their continued tolerance of President Trump’s frequent use of racist rhetoric.
When powerful leaders like Trump use racist language with impunity and refuse to condemn white supremacy, it grants others permission to do the same. Rooting out racism in all its forms is, unfortunately, an impossible task, but we can and must take real steps to make such behavior unwelcome here in Vermont and across our nation.