Op-ed: Seeking racial equity in Vermont

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

This week’s New Yorker magazine cover “This Side Up,” illustrates an upside down world, capturing an aspect of how many are feeling right now. Our U.S. government has failed to adequately prepare and protect its citizens from a global pandemic – and our public safety officers, whose job is to protect and serve the people who pay their salaries, are, in far too many instances, traumatizing them – and even killing them.

This is not the way it is supposed to be. This is indeed an upside down world.

The Vermont legislature has been consumed for the last three months in our response to the challenges the Covid-19 crisis has wrought upon our state. Every one of us who serves our state in this capacity is clear on the level of stress and anxiety that our constituents are living with.

When you add to that the murder by a policeman of yet another innocent black man – you have a tinder box – you have an explosion of all that we feel is unfair, unjust, inhumane and unwarranted. George Floyd’s death reminds us that the pandemic is not the only crisis we face.

The tragedy of George Floyd’s death is a terrible reminder of the embedded racial inequality in our country. It has torn the scab off the great national wound of racial disparity and subjugation. It calls the question on what every state is doing to address systemic racism.

While Vermont has begun the work of righting centuries of wrongs, it still has a long way to go. We have taken some steps to heal wounds many of us didn’t even realize were still open.

There are many systemic failures we need to continue to reform: the growing inequality in our economic system, in our criminal justice system and in our educational system. Over the years that I have served in the legislature we’ve enacted many measures from ‘fair and impartial policing’ policies, to improving inclusive educational policy, to increasing the minimum wage, to continuing our work reforming our criminal justice system, to addressing systemic racism in state government by creating a Racial Equity Advisory Panel in 2018, which in 2019 hired a Racial Equity director.

A stark reminder of our need to continue honing our racial equity policies happened last year when our legislative colleague, Kiah Morris of Bennington, resigned as a result of terrible racial harassment.

We would like to think that this kind of ugly, immoral behavior doesn’t happen here in Vermont, but it does. And to that end, I am pleased the governor has appointed Xusana Davis, Vermont’s Racial Equity director, to lead the Racial Equity Task Force. Many of you have emailed with constructive ideas about how to change and improve Vermont’s laws around racial equity and policing.

I have high hopes that this task force will address each and every one of these and come back to the legislature with recommendations for how Vermont can make significant progress on correcting our course incorporating racial equity in all we do.

Our work will, in small part, ensure George Floyd did not die in vain. The nation is outraged and the nation is listening, maybe in a way we couldn’t have several months ago. Because we have been in a ‘stay home, stay safe’ mode for three months, we are quieter, less busy. As a result, we are better able to listen to the anger and injustice the death of George Floyd has challenged us to address. So many questions are being asked that we have to answer. And, chief among them: “What kind of a nation do we want to be?”

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at 457-4627.

Sen. Clarkson represents the Windsor District in the Vermont General Assembly.

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