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Activism, Reform In A Country Built On Racism: A Conversation With Vt. Racial Justice Leaders

Activist Tabitha Moore speaks with a megaphone to crowd
Michael O'Brien, courtesy
/
Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, speaks to a crowd of protesters on June 7 in Rutland.

Protests erupted across the country over the killing of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day. Calls for justice and the overthrowing of systemic racism in the U.S. echoed from Burlington to Seattle. In this recorded conversation, we speak with two Vermont racial justice leaders about reform, activism and what white allies should and shouldn’t be doing. 

Our guests are:

This is the third post in a series from the episode of Vermont Edition that originally broadcasted live on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 1 p.m. You can find the first post, featuring Xusana Davis, Vermont's Executive Director for Racial Equity, here. And the second post, featuring Erin Maguire and Christie Nold, two Vermont educators that specialize in diversity, can be found here.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

For more conversations from this show, and information about systemic racism and ways to combat it, keep an eye out for future stories on Vermont Public Radio’s home page over the next two weeks. 

Jane Lindholm: Prison reform is a big issue when it comes to race in Vermont. The United States has the highest percentage of its people in prison, while Europe's rate is a third of ours. “Vermont's prison system is one of the most racist among the 50 states,” a listener writes [and Brave Little State reported on]. Could you talk about the issue of race in Vermont's prison system?

Mark Hughes: Whose prison system is not racist? The whole system that was designed to be called the prison system was a racist idea. We were founded as a racist nation and we were racist before we were a nation. Every construct in our society is racist in terms of the fabric of this society in what we refer to as systemic racism. So, of course, our prison system is racist.

More from VPR: Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

Jane Lindholm: This is a moment where perhaps some people are having conversations or thinking about these issues in a way they haven't before. What are you pushing forward with right now that you think we might be able to accomplish in Vermont and beyond?

Mark Hughes: We're looking at how to implement policies where there is data collection on use of force, the appropriate use of force, de-escalation and cross-cultural awareness. I think this and other reforms are important including access to housing and education, employment and health services. The big one that nobody seems to want to talk about is the one that actually does us the most damage. And that is the economic one, understanding that systemic racism is the unjustly gained political and economic power of whites and the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines.  

Mark Hughes stands downtown
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR File
Mark Hughes, co-founder of Justice For All.

More from VPR: Amid National Protests, Vermont State Police Don’t Expect Body Cameras This Year

Tabitha Moore: A lot of the things we’re pushing for right now are dealing with policing. But there are also some other initiatives in the legislature that support our Abenaki brothers and sisters and our LGBTQIA community. All of those things are important and it's important that we're doing them as one. So legislatively, there's a lot going on that people should be paying attention to. People have greater access now, so if you are homebound or if you have time or you are interested, start to tune in to some of the committee meetings that are going on.

"The big one that nobody seems to want to talk about is the one that actually does us the most damage. And that is the economic one, understanding that systemic racism is the unjustly gained political and economic power of whites and the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines." -Mark Hughes, Co-Founder of Justice For All

White people now are starting to say, “oh my gosh, this is terrible. What do I do?” You recognize that you have more power than you think in your place of work. Saying, how did we get to this place in our system and why aren't we talking about race? Having this uncomfortable conversation has to start happening.

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Jane Lindholm: This is a moment for white people to step up and think about things and maybe talk about them differently. But how do you not then tamp down or speak over the voices of people of color in this movement?

Tabitha Moore: It is a fine balance. There are conversations that white people need to be having by themselves, and there are conversations that black people and people of other races may be having by ourselves. But at the same time, there's conversations that need to be happening together. So, if you're going to be doing public demonstrations to talk about your outrage about racism and you do that without us, it is neglectful at best.

More from VPR: Teenagers Of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

If you're trying to show solidarity with somebody, you should probably make sure that those people want that solidarity and need it in that way. That's not to say that the work then becomes the work of the people of color, but white people do need to be congregating and speaking with themselves and then approaching the people of color in their lives to say, you know, is this appropriate? It’s also important to note that this doesn't mean that all white people should go out and talk to their one black friend and say, “hey, am I doing this right?” It means that you need to do a lot of work educating yourself.

"White people now are starting to say, "oh my gosh, this is terrible. What do I do?" You recognize that you have more power than you think in your place of work." -Tabitha Moore, President of the Rutland Area NAACP

This conversation has been happening for centuries. This is not new information. I don't think any of us are saying anything that black and brown people have not been saying for decades. We haven't come that far because white folks, by and large, forget in those moments where there aren't three people murdered in a week that this is an issue. Educate yourself. Talk with other white people about that. We don't necessarily need to hear your thoughts on that. What we need to know is what you're going to do with that to change the system that you're benefiting from.

More from VPR: Thousands Protest Police Violence, Racism At Rallies Across Vermont

Do you think this is a moment where you're optimistic for hope, where you think there could be a change?

Mark Hughes: Absolutely. I've always been optimistic. And this is one thing that black people have historically always carried forward. Whether it's been our religion, that gospel song or R&B song or just something in the heart or something in the spirit, we are a resilient people. We will be okay. So, I am confident that we're going to get on the other side of this as a nation.

Tabitha Pohl-Moore
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Tabitha Moore speaks at a demonstration against police violence and racism, in Rutland.

We're at a point where the deaths of black and brown people have increased, too, to the extent to where it seems that it would be almost unbearable for us across this nation. And I say increased because black and brown people have been dying at disproportionate rates compared with white people throughout all English colonial time.

For white people who are showing up to the battle right now, I would just say welcome. Thanks for showing up. Glad to have you.

And I would also say that if you ever watched a war movie pay close attention to the new guys, because what they're supposed to do is show up and listen. They're not supposed to create their own platoon. They're not supposed to find another hill, because if they're not careful, they're going to get somebody hurt or worse. So welcome to the battle. We haven't even gotten to the war yet.  

We are in a global pandemic right now where black and brown people are getting sick and dying at highly disproportionate rates and being asked to go back to work at highly disproportionate rates as the economy continues to open. This is our world now. And it doesn't make any difference what kind of policy you try to put forward if you don't take care of this original sin. This is where you're going to find yourself.

More from VPR: Race, COVID-19 And Health Disparities In Vermont

"I don't think any of us are saying anything that black and brown people have not been saying for decades. We haven't come that far because white folks, by and large, forget in those moments where there aren't three people murdered in a week that this is an issue." - Tabitha Moore, President of the Rutland Area NAACP

Are there any specific resources you recommend to our listeners to educate themselves on racial justice issues?

Mark Hughes: Racist America by Joe Feagin is a book on how prison systems are racist.  

You can also look at [the Justice For All website] and [the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance website]. We've got webinars that are going on all of the time with hundreds of people, and you can jump in there. There's a legislative agenda that has been in place for years.

Tabitha Moore:  White people, I suggest you go out and buy books like White Fragility. That's a great place to start. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is also a great resource.

Here’s what local racial justice groups recommend you read and do:

More from NPR: This List Of Books, Films And Podcasts About Racism Is A Start, Not A Panacea

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