State News

Lawmakers hope to broaden effort to combat racial bias

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Lawmakers are moving ahead with proposals to examine racial bias in government and education in what they say is an effort to level the playing field for all Vermonters.

Among the legislative initiatives is a bill (S.281), sponsored by Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, that would establish a commission to take a broad-based look at racial disparities in government at every level and in all sectors. It also would make racial profiling illegal.

The panel, to be known as the Equity Commission for the Mitigation of Systemic Racism, would collect data on specific incidences of racism, monitor procedures and provide oversight. Law enforcement, education, employment and housing are among the state systems on which it would focus.

On the House side, Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, plans to introduce a bill in the next few days that would address racial disparities and other forms of prejudice specifically in the area of education.

“We know that this took centuries to build and it’s going to take all of us to tear it down,” Morris said last week. “We have to find a way to acknowledge where we come from so that we can do better and not continue to make the same mistakes.”

Her remarks came during a Systemic Racism Awareness Day event at the Statehouse in Montpelier. She was joined by advocates for racial justice at the all-day gathering, which was aimed at eliminating institutional racism through legislative reform.

The event, hosted by the Racial Justice Reform Coalition, followed the release of a report last month by the Vermont Human Rights Commission that looked at how people of color fared in education, employment, housing, health care and economic development. The coalition hopes that this session’s legislative efforts will help broaden the application of Act 54, which was signed into law last year.

Act 54 created an advisory panel to provide recommendations to address racial disparities in statewide criminal and juvenile justice systems. It also called for development of a strategy to address bias within state systems of education, labor and employment, and access to housing and health care.

In a statement announcing the Statehouse gathering, the coalition said it viewed Act 54 as a good first step and urged lawmakers to strengthen S.281 to “ensure that Vermont is doing all it can to protect and advance justice and equality for all within our borders.” The group also called for passage of Morris’ bill in the House.

Those intersectional approaches, such as addressing racism through looking at disparities in health care, were removed before final adoption of Act 54. A number of legislators were concerned that is was “too much too soon” or “too complex,” said Morris, herself a co-sponsor of the bill (H.308) that became Act 54.

“There is intersectionality in so many other places,” Morris said. “It would be counterproductive to focus on one when we need to see the threads between all these places.”


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