Vt. lawmakers seek to incorporate racial justice into pandemic recovery

Published: Jan. 18, 2021 at 2:24 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taking on a new meaning for Vermont lawmakers as they seek to continue work surrounding racial equity and criminal justice reform.

The last legislative session was a landmark year for police reform and equity at the Vermont Statehouse. Even though the pandemic and economic recovery will take center stage this session, lawmakers are poised to pass policies aimed at tackling systemic inequities.

In the last several decades, lawmakers have taken on more bills addressing systemic equity. But last summer the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests spurred lawmakers to take action.

“In terms of policy of body cameras, facial recognition technology being used by the police,” said Rep. Brian Cina, D/P-Burlington.

COVID-19 is shining a new light on Vermont’s racial inequities, as Vermonters of color have contracted the coronavirus at a higher rate. The pandemic has also hit lower-income families the hardest financially.

Vermont’s Social Equity Caucus is planning on introducing bills acknowledging the history of racism in Vermont, creating systems to address systemic racism and to transform existing systems.

“To come up with solutions in the recovery in this pandemic that address inequities and disparities for everyone,” Cina said.

But the pandemic, helping struggling businesses, and keeping the state budget balanced is taking center stage. Lawmakers say it’s possible to have both by intentionally incorporating racial and social equity into all aspects of lawmakers’ work, from economic to education to environmental policy.

“It’s all-encompassing,” said Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford. “We can’t disaggregate it from any of the topics we’re dealing with.”

Some proposals on the table this session such as reparations for slavery will be met with opposition as the details are nuanced and at times controversial. Republican lawmakers say as the political chasms widen at the national level, Vermont can lead the way by communicating differences in an open way.

“If we’re going to get to the point where Martin Luther King was saying ‘We have to stop looking at each other as the enemy somehow and look at each other as Americans,’” said Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia County.

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