Saturday, June 09, 2007

Why So Many Black Vermonters Behind Bars?

Why are there so many black Vermonters imprisoned? And why are we so afraid to discuss this question?

Just asking the question raises the hackles of many. And for good reason – because asking the question means that we’re talking about race. But here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation, we’re hardly immune from racism. It’s virtually impossible to have a justice system that’s blind to race. It’s time we named and addressed the inequities in our systems.

To that end, I attended a meeting on May 23rd with community leaders on issues of race, incarceration, and racial profiling. Present were about 50 people, a third of whom were African-Americans, recent immigrants from Africa, and other people of color. My hat goes off to Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan who convened the meeting and community advocate Hal Colston who brought the issue to TJ’s attention.

We discussed how blacks are arrested and incarcerated at rates many times that of whites in Vermont, and that the state lacks basic data or systems to track what critics call rampant racial profiling. I’m pleased that Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), publicly offered to work with me on drafting legislation to address these concerns, and I’ve already had discussions with Mr. Colston, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, and the head of Vermont’s ACLU, and several others on how best to proceed. The ball is rolling, and I’m heartened that community-based groups of people of color plan to take the lead on this matter, with participation from law enforcement, Corrections staff, and other key stakeholders.

Next step: the Citizens for Social Justice will be meeting on June 20 at noon at the Fletcher Free Library in downtown Burlington. I'll be attending to discuss this issue further. You're invited.


At June 20, 2007 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously not a popular or politically correct question, but what if black (or any group/race/gender) vermonters are committing more crime? Could this be an answer? If crime stats are showing more of any group or race committing crimes and the corresponding number of incarcerated persons from that group is higher...wouldn't that mean the system is working?

At June 20, 2007 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this issue to the forefront. It's a critical issue as Vermonters work towards justice for all. I believe that we have a growing problem in Vermont of intolerance for people of color and other identities. From talking and listening to my friends of color, there is a big problem with racism, subtle and not so subtle.
I do have a question about the statistics in the graph. Are the percentages based on rates on inmates per population of the group? I'd be curious to see how the growth rate of incarceration compares to any growth or decline in the various populations within the state.

At June 20, 2007 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to the first post about black (or any group/race/gender) committing more crime than other groups:

Thank you for bringing this up. It's important that we ask questions like yours even when, as you said, they may not sound politically correct. This is where the real discussion begins.

If "...statistics show more of any group or race committing crimes," then I'd like to bring up some other possibilities.

One possibility is that all races commit the same amount of crime (generally, and proportionately), yet because of racial profiling and bystanders who call the police because they "feel funny about the guy in they alley" in part due to what he looks like or how he's dressed, etc., it just so happens that more attention gets paid to one racial group. So if this possibility has merit, it would make sense that more people of color are being caught and, thus, incarcerated. A kid running around in the schoolyard donning neon green swim goggles will probably be caught more frequently for hitting and pushing than will the other fifteen kids in his class. Not because he's rowdier, but because hey - you can't help but stare at those neon goggles. In Vermont, black stands out the same way those goggles do. On top of that, I do deign to suggest that our social world has attached some very negative connotations to the race. It just makes sense that people are more afraid, when we've been told from a very young age to "watch our backs." And no, this is not a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of people of color, per se. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of people of privilege.

Another possibility is that, because of the afforementioned inequality in social treatment among our varying races, some of our brothers and sisters are growing up in a very different world than we white folks are. Did you ever notice that some of the kids in that schoolyard with troublesome homelives were oft deemed "disruptive?" Is it their fault they were raised under different circumstances than those of us who had stable family support? No, this doesn't make it okay to disrupt a classroom. But perhaps we should be having a conversation about why certain social groups in our community are marginalized the way they are, and what we can do about it.

This post isn't about "excuses," but it is about what we can do to move forward - and isn't that the whole point of this initiative, anyway?

At June 21, 2007 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a man of color growing up in Vermont, I have seen my share of racial bias. Coming from a home with a single mom that still taught me right and wrong, I'm disturbed by some of the comments above. Troubled home life, economic status or "growing up in a different world" is an excuse for criminal activity???

It may not be your fault for growing up with a troubled family, but choosing to commit a crime is.

Moving "forward" means making sure that all citizens of Vermont are neither profiled or IGNORED based on race, gender or creed.

The city of Burlington has grown in recent years. I see a lot of new, mostly white faces lately, new license plates and a lot of new crime as well.

The unfortunate fact has been the increased crime rates have directly corresponded to an increase in migration to Vermont. Some of those people are minorities, but most are not. All should be upstanding citizens or face the consequences.

Most Vermonters aren't racist. It's more complex that that. We are "people-from-outside-the-state-ists". Black/White/Hispanic/Asian...We are less than trustful of people that move here from somewhere else (me included). Being the whitest state makes people of color the easy target.

At September 29, 2007 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever stop to think these people are being put in jail, ohhhh I don't know, because they are comitting crimes?

If a black person kills someone in your family, will you be so quick to blame it on poverty and lobby for mercy of the court?

No you wouldn't, so don't expect others to do so, dolt.


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