Thursday, November 8, 2012

Diversity in Vermont

by Jon Margolis
Vermont Newsguy

    In Vermont, when it comes to race, ethnicity, and similar matters that so often bedevil so much of the country, statistics would seem to tell a simple story: In this state, those matters don’t matter.

    Vermont is 95.5 percent white, according to the latest estimates (2011) from the Census Bureau, and 94.2 percent non-Hispanic white. Contrast that with the rest of the country:  only 63.4 percent non-Hispanic white. It’s in the rest of the country, one would think, with large minority populations, where problems with racial discrimination and unequal treatment would arise.

    Especially (again, one would think) because Vermont is such a liberal state, as it demonstrated once again on Election Day. By reputation, Vermonters are tolerant and open-minded. So, one would think, Vermont has no race problem.

    Think again.

    First of all, while those statistics reveal the second-whitest (after Maine) state in the nation, they also show that Vermont is not as white as it was a decade ago, and whiter than it will be a decade hence.

    To use the approved current terminology, Vermont is becoming more diverse.

    In the plain meaning of the word (“composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities”) Vermont’s population has always been diverse: rural and urban; rich and poor; Catholics, Protestants, Jews (and lately a few Muslims), and the largest percentage of not-at-all religious people in the country; a substantial French-Canadian community as well as ethnic Irish and Italians; and the small (0.4 percent, or about 2,500) but persistent remnant of the folks who got here before all the others – the Abenaki.

    But as used these days, “diversity” has a different definition. The new definition is political, though not in the derogatory sense of that word. Diversity has come to mean an awareness of other races, ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences. It goes beyond tolerance, acceptance, or even equal rights to imply an active effort to appreciate the cultures of those who are different.

    Or in the words of Mikaela Sims, the Diversity Coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School, a sense that “we are connected to each other and have to understand the connectedness.”

It’s a discussion which comes to Vermont just as Vermont is becoming more multi-racial. The face of Vermont is changing because its faces are changing. If the number of non-white faces remains small, it is growing rapidly. As always, change bothers some people, and while most Vermonters do indeed seem to be tolerant and open-minded, most does not equal all.

    There is no organized racist faction in Vermont, no avowedly racist violence. The only Klan-style cross-burning in memory took place more than 20 years ago in White River Junction, and the cross-burners were from out of state.

    But in the last several years there have been more than a few reliable reports of harassment. Of black and Hispanic children in school who occasionally hear slurs to their faces or in their presence. Of African-Americans followed around in stores as though they are likely to shop-lift. Of high school girls reviled as “sluts,” or students who are gay (or sometimes only seem as though they might be gay) reviled as “fags.”

    Is there very much of this?

    Probably not, except to its victims. The teenager whose high school locker was defaced with a racial slur (that happened), or who is taunted by fellow-students for his or her perceived homosexuality is not likely to be comforted by statistics showing that such behavior is rare.

    As Professor Fayneese Miller, the dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont noted, “any time you have one incident, that’s one incident too many.”

That 94.2 percent non-Hispanic white figure is a drop of  “only” 2.4 percentage points from the 2000 Census, but in this context, that decline is substantial. In those ten years, the black population doubled to more than 6,200 and the number of Hispanics rose 67 percent to more than 9,200. The Asian-American population rose about 50 percent to more than 8,700, and more than 10,000 Vermonters reported that they were an amalgam of two or more races.

Those new, minority, Vermonters are not evenly distributed around the state. Most are in Burlington and Winooski, though they are starting to spread out into other towns in Chittenden County. And there are small outposts elsewhere. Ten percent of the students in Twinfield High School in Plainfield are Hispanic or African-American. So are perhaps 100 of the 800 students at Brattleboro Union High School, according to Mikaela Sims.

    As is true in much of the country, racial/ethnic minorities make up higher percentages of the young. The percentage of young African-Americans in Vermont doubled between 2000 and 2010. The proportion of younger Latinos and Asians also rose. In the years to come, then, Vermont’s minority populations are likely to grow, and so will their inter-actions with the majority, creating the potential for more conflict.

    Not that there has been any shortage of conflict already, much of it in the schools. According to the Department of Education’s Safe and Healthy School there were 736 cases of hazing or harassment in the 2009-2010 school year, mostly teasing about sex and sexual orientation.

    Not all these incidents amounted to harassment, said Robert Appel, the Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Most of it is old-fashioned bullying, he said, “for acne or because a student smells bad,” which is objectionable but not covered by the state’s civil rights laws.

    But harassment in schools because of race, gender, disability, or sexual preference is covered by law, he said. Under the law, Appel said, schools are public accommodations, and required to protect students from such harassment by other students as well as faculty. According to a report from the Commission, in Fiscal Year 2011, 20 harassment complaints were filed, and though many were dismissed or settled within the school systems, one is subject to a pending lawsuit.

    More complaints resulted from alleged harassment because of a student’s disability or sexual orientation than for race or ethnicity. But it was alleged race-based mistreatment that led to a major controversy last May in Burlington, where some black high school students, many of them recent immigrants from Africa whose first language was not English, complained of unequal treatment and frequent harassment.

    The dispute became bitter, with charges and counter-charges about possible misuse of data, disagreements about the importance of hiring more non-white teachers, and calls for dismissing School Superintendent Jeanne Collins. In the end, Collins kept her job, a formal process of meetings and discussions about diversity and inclusion was created, and by many accounts, the High School is on its way toward resolving the dispute.

    In general, Vermont’s educational establishment is moving to deal with actual or potential problems arising from the state’s increasing diversity. The Education Department regularly compiles data on bullying and harassment. In August, Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca announced the formation of a Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council. There is also action in the unofficial world, including a special discussion on ethnic diversity in the state’s public schools scheduled for November 15th on Vermont Public Television.

Not everyone thinks this is enough. Behind the scenes, though, there is some concern that it goes too far. There is no organized – or even visible – opposition. But privately some people wonder whether the emphasis on social, racial, and ethnic differences threatens to weaken the common cultural bonds that link groups together.

Others wonder why those many Vermont towns and schools that remain 100 percent white and Anglo should have to deal with what is not now a problem for them. Of course, they may not remain that monochromatic for that long. And as Dean Fayneese Miller said, there is an educational advantage in “preparing people to be part of a civil society, (one with) many different cultures.” As the election results revealed, this is barely a majority white Anglo country any more. Navigating one’s way through it – in or out of Vermont – could require some understanding and appreciation of the other folks.

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