We Have a Lot of Work to Do on Racial Equity, Vermont

March 29, 2017

We Have to Do Better, Vermont

We love our home state, this gorgeous land of maple syrup, great skiing, beautiful town squares, amazing autumn color, pretty decent ice cream, and all kinds of other great stuff.

But recent research has shown that black drivers are twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers on Vermont roads. And an earlier study, released over the summer, indicates that this is part of an unfortunate trend in our state: from 2011 to 2015, racial disparities in traffic stops have increased.

A separate report, “The Color of Justice,” put out by the Sentencing Project, found that Vermont incarcerates African Americans at a ridiculously high rate—among the highest in the nation.

We like to think of ourselves as fair and just up here. We like to think of ourselves as supporters of justice and equality for everybody. Well, this data suggests that we have a lot of work to do.

Driving While Black (In a Very White State)

The traffic-stop study, “Driving While Black and Brown,” published by the University of Vermont, also reports that black and Hispanic drivers are three to four times more likely to be searched after a traffic stop than white drivers, even though white drivers are actually more likely to be caught with something they shouldn’t have in the car.

The Vermont numbers, on both stops and searches, come from all over the state. It’s not just a problem for a few towns or a particular region. The same story plays out everywhere. Of course, the same story plays out across the entire country. Blacks are stopped and searched far more often, though whites are found with contraband at higher rates.

It’s just that in Vermont, the racial divide is wider than almost anywhere else in the US. The Green Mountain State is 94% white. Only 1% of the population is black.

Take Action!

Sign the Petition to Support Racial Justice in Vermont

Who Goes to Jail, and Who Doesn’t

Unfortunately, these racially motivated traffic stops are not an isolated example of racial inequality in our state. The Sentencing Project has found that Vermont is one of just five states where blacks are incarcerated at a rate ten times higher than whites.

According to their report, 1 out of every 14 black men in our state is incarcerated, the highest rate in the entire country. Further, blacks are jailed at a rate of 2,357 per 100,000 residents, the third highest of any state. And whites? 253 per 100,000 residents. Something is seriously wrong with that picture.

And the picture gets even messier when you factor in for-profit prisons. Vermont's inmates are often transfered to out-of-state for-profit prisons instead of being housed close to home. This is good news for the prisons, which get the inmates they rely on for funding, but inmates themselves lose out big time. They're far from home — often far enough that friends and family cannot visit regularly — and living conditions are abysmal. Fortunately, Vermont lawmakers are moving to bring all Vermonters incarcerated out of state back home. By developing additional transitional housing and community treatment programs, they believe they can bring back the 250 Vermonters currently incarcerated out of state without overcrowding existing facilities. We have some serious beef with for-profit prisons, so we can't wait for this plan to become reality.


Combatting Implicit Bias

Vermont officials are adamant that out-and-out racism is not the reason for those eye-popping disparities in traffic stops and sentencing. And the truth is, they’re probably right. But even actions with the best of intentions can backfire into awful outcomes. So what’s at the root of this systemic issue with policing in our home state?

Implicit bias affects all of us, and is part of why systemic racism is such a destructive and difficult-to-root-out force.

It’s particularly destructive in policing and criminal justice, if only because the results are so often dire—a matter of life and death. Police departments around the country are adapting their training programs to address implicit bias, but there are no easy solutions.

Officers may not have racist intent, but when faced with stats like these, it’s hard to argue that something isn’t amiss.

Take Action!
Sign the Petition to Support Racial Justice in Vermont

Fairness for All

Despite the difficulty of the task, we are convinced that change can happen. In fact, change HAS happened. There have already been some positive and hopeful developments in Vermont.

  • The state legislature passed a law in 2014 requiring police agencies to track racial data on traffic stops. (Though the big challenge now is ensuring that all agencies submit the necessary data—so far, at least 20 have not.)
  • A new bias-free policing policy went into effect on July 1.
  • Captain Ingrid Jonas has been selected to serve as the Vermont State Police’s first director of Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs, a program meant to ensure bias-free policing across the state and all its communities.

Vermont prides itself on its progressive values. We were the first state to abolish slavery, we led the way on LGBTQ rights, we were the first to ban fracking and require GMO labeling. So it’s simply unacceptable to allow this discrimination towards people of color to continue. We’re pulling for you, Vermont! Time to live up to your own highest ideals.


Take action! Sign the petition to support racial justice in Vermont today.