MONTPELIER — Supporters of an amendment to the Vermont Constitution eliminating any reference to slavery say such a change is needed to combat systemic racism.
The Senate Government Operations Committee held a public hearing Thursday at the State House about the proposed change to the state’s constitution. The amendment has been sponsored by much of the state Senate.
The Vermont Constitution says no person 21 or older should serve as a slave unless bound by their own consent or “by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.” Advocates want that part removed. Since the amendment was introduced, some lawmakers and constitutional scholars have said such a change is unnecessary because it’s already illegal to own slaves due to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Those in attendance for Thursday’s hearing, over a dozen people, disagreed.
Christine Longmore is bi-racial and has spent most of her life in Vermont. Longmore said as she was driving to the State House from Burlington, she thought about the first time she had to tell her children what slavery was.
“It’s a really difficult conversation,” she said. “It’s also really difficult to explain to my brown sons, especially in the state of Vermont, that if they ever come into contact with police they are going to have to be extra careful. Not just careful, but extra careful because they are brown and it could be very easy for them to end up in jail even if they just said the wrong thing.”
Multiple speakers at the hearing talked about how a type of slavery still exists in this country in the form of prisons that put inmates to work for little or no pay. They talked about how a black person is more likely to end up behind bars than a white person.
Sylvia Knight, of Burlington, said this amendment provides “a unique moment in history where we can begin to rectify the troubling and damaging legacy of slavery in our country.”
Knight said it’s important for the state’s Constitution, which is the basis for Vermont’s laws, to not provide a basis for inequity or inequality for anyone. She said she’s become “painfully aware” of the inequities of racism since the 1960s.
“As whites, we participate in implicit bias and benefit from institutional racial inequity. It is ingrained in our laws, institutions and cultures,” she said.
In Vermont, she said there’s been neighborhoods with restrictive covenants in regards to people of color, a failure to protect black people in the state from racial harassment and those of color are not treated the same as white people in regards to the law.
Rachel Wilson, of Woodbury, said she was there to speak on behalf of young students of color in the state. Wilson said having any language in the Constitution referring to slavery sends a clear message to people of color.
“That we are not safe in Vermont. That justice may not be served to us. And I have to say I’ve seen so many instances of racism in schools that have just been swept under the rug. Time and again we see that we’re not being supported in the state of Vermont. When we stand up there’s always backlash. People of color move to Vermont and then they leave because they don’t feel like they have the support of the community and of the state behind them,” she said.
The committee will continue to hear testimony on the amendment in the coming days.