A Braver Little State – Opinion piece by Paul Dragon, CVOEO Executive Director

When I was 10 years old, I was riding my new bike with my cousin in Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island. The park borders South Providence, referred to then as the “ghetto” and comprised of mainly Black people while just north was our neighborhood in Cranston: white, Catholic, and struggling economically. The dividing line was the Providence/Worcester railroad, running north to south, making for a virtual no man’s land filled with obsolete train equipment, shrubs, and ruined railroad buildings.

We crossed the tracks and rode our bikes over grassy hills in a remote area of the park.   At every turn, there seemed to be a stone bench, worn statue, or exotic tree giving the park a strange, forgotten quality. That day a group of Black kids stopped us and then took our bikes.  After a long walk home, my father had one question: How hard had I fought?  He told me to get into the car and went into the garage emerging with his long fishing knife used to gut bluefish and off we drove to find my bike.

We drove through the Black neighborhood in his Plymouth, slowly turning into each street.  Suddenly he stopped at a bike that looked like mine with a girl about my age still on it. Jumping out, he called to me, “Is it yours?”  “No, I don’t think so,” I said from the window.  “Get out here,” he demanded.   I looked under the seat as the girl clutched the handlebar.  I had carved my initials under the seat.  It was not my bike.  As we drove off, I looked back. The little girl was still clutching her handlebars and looking right at me.

My father left home not long after that, while the image of that girl on the bike has stayed with me to this day.  Both my parents disparaged Blacks, as did my relatives, neighbors, and friends and as did I. Distrusting and disparaging Black people was part of my childhood and teenage years.  As a young adult, I came to question and disown the racism that was all around me, yet even now, years later, I still have a lot to learn and to unlearn.

At the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, we are hiring a Director of Racial Equity to lead the work of our Racial Equity Committee.  The State has also formed a Racial Equity Task Force.  This is important and difficult work. Vermont has a history with deep roots in racism and marginalizing people who are different that includes one of the country’s most active eugenics programs, Better Baby Contests at County Fairs, the Take Back Vermont movement and the always present social and health disparities based on race.

Rainer Marie Rilke said that most people turn their solutions toward what is easy but that we must turn our trust to what is most difficult. Vermont and the United States need to confront the past and present and to do it properly, we will need to be honest and do the difficult work of rethinking our communities and rebuilding our systems while committing our collective resources. We cannot rest on apologies if we are to achieve justice for all.

For those of us who think we have come far or even that race doesn’t matter, one simple thought experiment might suffice to better understand the important distinction between “all lives matter” and Black Lives Matter.  For this experiment, we can use John Rawl’s method of determining the morality of an issue through what he called the “veil of ignorance” and the “original position.”  The method suggests  that if we were ignorant to how we might be born Black or white, rich or poor, abled or differently abled, gay or straight, Trans or not, that we would strive to build  the most equitable society possible for all people. We can also invert Rawl’s method to ask knowing what we know now and from our current position, how many of us white people with our implicit and explicit privilege would choose to be born a person of color in America today?

I think of that little girl watching me, holding on to her bike with a mixture of resolve and sadness. Black Lives Matter.

Note: The name Brave Little State comes from a speech delivered by Vermont native and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge at Bennington on September 21, 1928. Coolidge was touring his home state by train to assess progress of recovery following the devastating 1927 flood.

Paul Dragon is the Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity