Editor’s note: This commentary by John Klar originally appeared at Human Events.
The “social justice” movement that’s taken the nation by storm since last summer has descended upon the Green Mountains as leftists employ absurd lies to impose glaring injustices. Perhaps the biggest of these lies being spread by leftists lawmakers is that Vermonters killed off all the Native Americans, and must now pay economic penance. A vile bill, introduced by 18 misinformed legislators, incorporates fraudulent claims to statutorily inflict hateful vengeance in the name of “social justice.”
H.273, “An act relating to promoting racial and social equity in land access,” proposes to contribute $10 million to a BIPOC-operated bank which will administer the funds for BIPOC applicants to purchase land or housing in “every town in Vermont.” To justify this, the bill incorporates the following fallacious drivel:
The foundation of our current economic system was built on land that was taken from Abenaki and other Indigenous persons, and the structures of our economic system were constructed with the labor of enslaved persons … The laws and policies of our State and nation severed Indigenous persons from their land while denying them, Black persons, and other Persons of Color from having the opportunity to access and to own land.
That all sounds horrid, of course, but here’s the thing… It never happened. Not in Vermont, at least. This statute re-writes Vermont’s history, replacing its past with fiction. It attributes violence against Abenakis to all Vermonters, when the reality is that the vast majority of white migrants settled lands nearly empty of Abenaki, back in the 1800s. The Abenaki were nomadic and did not “own land” to be “taken” in the western sense, and the “economic system” alleged in the statute was white subsistence farming, which built Vermont’s economy for some two hundred years—after most Abenaki were gone. The bill alleges that “Centuries of genocide, eugenics, broken treaties, displacement, and land dispossession placed persons of the Abenaki Nations and other Indigenous persons living in Vermont at a great social disadvantage.” While it is true that Abenaki were targeted for forced sterilization, that was a progressive policy of which most white Vermonters were simply not complicit—indeed, poor white farmers were themselves targeted.
The statute also conflates the Abenaki and slaves, yet slavery was prohibited in Vermont by its “laws and policies”—the first Constitution in the nation, in fact, banning slavery. Vermont is so extremely white today because slavery was almost nonexistent in the state’s history. There is no record of Vermont “denying… [people of color]… from having access to land.” It just did not occur, not “systemically,” not ever.
In truth, the historic basis for this kind of legislation is entirely imagined.
The true BIPOC Vermont
Black people have never lived in Vermont in significant numbers: the 1960 Census (Table 15) reflects 572 Black residents in 1920, 568 in 1930, 584 in 1940, 443 in 1950, and 519 in 1960. The 1910 U.S. Census identified 34 Native Americans residing in Vermont in 1890, 5 in 1900, and 26 in 1910. But the evidence that this demographic makeup is a result of discrimination—or “barriers to the equal enjoyment and economic benefit of land access and homeownership opportunities based on race and ethnicity,” as H. 273 alleges—is scant.
Instead, the bill makes a huge show of condemning historic grievances that “BIPOC” Americans may have with the federal government: the General Allotment Act of 1887(the Dawes Act); policies started 1934 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that were criticized for “denying Black and brown residents equal access to home mortgages, often offering subprime loans that came with unusually severe terms”; or the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Actwhich created the G.I. Bill of Rights (“Funds from the bill were only made available to White soldiers returning from war and not BIPOC veterans.”). None of these policies were enacted in or by Vermonters. At one point, the bill even calls out Jim Crow laws: “The rate of ‘Black land-loss’ can be attributed to Jim Crow, racist practices conducted by the USDA and decades of farm busts.” (Vermont, of course, was not a Jim Crow state).
Still, H. 273 seeks to fund land acquisition for those “who have not had equal access to public or private economic benefits due to race, ethnicity, sex, geography, language preference, immigrant or citizen status, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, or disability status.” Hundreds of thousands of white Vermonters, meanwhile, have endured a long history of crushing poverty—a history that “native” Vermonters well know, but a history which those who condemn them recast as “white privilege.”
Most “native” Vermonters (now a pejorative term) understand and are humbled by this history. Poor houses existed in numerous Vermont towns. Sheep farming was once relatively profitable, but the wool market peaked in 1851. Then, Vermont shifted its agriculture to dairy—first butter and cheese lugged to Boston; later, fresh milk. But the opening of the railroads undermined dairy prices, and Vermont dairy farming has been in decline ever since. Over the decades, from 1930 to the present, Vermont dairy suffered an “economic freefall.” Vermont’s dairy farms—its primary industry—shrank from 27,000 in 1927 to barely 600 today. Milk prices dropped by more than half during the Great Depression and never fully rebounded.
There were a few black farmers through this period, but blacks were mostly spared the abject misery, alcoholism, and despair that strangled white farm families who often lacked food, clothing, and dental or health care. This is what H.273 now fantastically alleges was a period of white privilege enabled by the exploitation of black and Abenaki labor.
Now Social Justice Warriors proclaim that today’s black Vermonters are owed money and land by their white neighbors, for nebulous crimes such as those routinely alleged (and far from proven) against Abenaki natives. “Native peoples” are routinely invoked by just-off-the-bus agitators who claim that only Native Americans (and them) have the right to declare who owns the land. As former legislator Kiah Morris proclaimed, “Unless you are First Nations, you have no right to claim who are real Vermonters. Nativist political platforms are the basest level of discourse.” SJWs use allegations of historic Native suffering to stake their claim—Kiah herself moved to Vermont from Chicago (where presumably, only native people have a right to claim who are really Chicagoans).
Xusana Davis, Vermont’s Executive Director of Racial Equity, echoes this same manipulation. Having moved to Vermont from New York City six months before COVID-19 struck, Xusana stated in a recent podcast:
What’s most interesting to me is that when we think about a typical Vermonter, it is often the case that people envision somebody who may be white. Oftentimes, people who are white who maybe are born and raised in Vermont, they’ll say, ‘I’m a native Vermonter.’ And I always think, oh, you’re Abenaki? Because if you’re really a native Vermonter, then you’re probably indigenous to the land.
But there are no Abenaki “indigenous to the land” in that there are no Abenaki with intact culture, language, or genetics. The Cro Magnon have no indigenous sites remaining either, so perhaps exploitation of them can be similarly understood. Why do newly arrived BIPOC ideologues possess the authority to exact retribution from white Vermonters who have lived on family land for 200 uninterrupted years?
Note how Davis invokes Native American history as a claim of right for black people:
[T]he message around who’s a real Vermonter circulates so much around whiteness and proximity to whiteness, as opposed to being rooted in the recognition that this remains unceded land, and that we all exist on this territory as a result of force, biological warfare, and the manipulation of laws that keeps some people buoyed by the system and others oppressed by it. So when it comes to a sense of belonging, I think we really have to reckon with that.
Davis attended Fordham University (the 14th most expensive American college), and New York Law School in New York City, even though NYC suffers from horrid wealth disparity, and sits on unceded land, stolen from the Lenape Indians. By what logic is Xusana Davis more of a Vermonter than those who have lived here for centuries? Is she “entitled” to claim their land because of ancient, generalized grievances? And under that logic, couldn’t Vermonters pack their carpetbags and employ the same exploitation and subjugation in NYC? This language of denigrating and condemning native white Vermonters resembles the colonizing languageof those who robbed the Inuit of their culture, or robbed Vermonters of their fertility during the eugenics movement.
Most Vermonters would be receptive to a law that acknowledged historic socio-economic racial disparities arising from slavery, and would seek to eliminate those inequities. But H. 273, which insists on denigrating Vermonters, is a bridge too far. Vermonters and their history are being unfairly (racially) vilified by opportunistic ideologues.
The true about Native American Vermonters
Leftist history revisionists frequently romanticize Native American culture, what they see as some Utopian hippie commune of peaceful weavers disrupted by murderous capitalists. Indeed the Abenaki were more peaceful than the neighboring Iroquois, but their life expectancy was very short, living conditions harsh, and famine was common. Native American life was hardly the Kumbaya Shangri-La that those who seek to exploit it pretend.
Some New England tribes were brutally warlike: the Mohawks (an Iroquois tribe) regularly conducted violent raids into Vermont against more peaceful tribes. In his thorough study of the life of Samuel de Champlain, the navigator and colonist who established French settlements in Quebec and New France, Pulitzer-prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer relays this:
Torture and cannibalism was an ancient custom among these nations. Not all Indians in the northeast practiced it. Acadian nations did not usually treat warrior-captives that way … Champlain understood this ritual atrocity better than some ethnographers have done, and he refused to accept any part of it. He hated Indian torture. It offended his deepest ideals and created a major obstacle to his grand design. He observed that the explicit purpose of torture was to commit an act of vengeance and retribution, designed to exceed the horror of tortures past. This was the foundation of Champlain’s judgment that the Indians had no law. He meant that their conception of justice was to punish a wrong by a greater wrong. That way of thinking was very different from an idea of law and justice as the rule of right.
Champlain’s desire was to create a new colony where Natives’ lives would improve, and he did contribute to growing amiability between the tribes. But the history is a complex one in which many Abenakis perished in wars fighting beside the French against British troops allied with other tribes. Fischer relates that, in 1755, 6,000 Abenakis were expelled from their lands in Nova Scotia by British governor Colonel Charles Lawrence. Singling out white Vermonters, who themselves were killed in both sides of these battles, is folly.
This humbling history is a far cry from the oversimplified assertions of H.273, which claims that Vermont’s white settlers employed slavery and genocide to obtain land. The statute conflates the two grievances of slavery and Abenaki abuse while clouding (re-fashioning) Vermont’s history relative to both. Proponents seem less interested in advancing the fortunes of black people than penalizing present-day Vermonters for wrongs past. And it does not appear that any Abenaki Vermonters were involved in its drafting.
Doing more harm than good
Douglas Murray sharply chronicles this dangerous propensity toward hate and thuggery from the New Left in his 2019 monograph, The Madness of Crowds. Murray writes, “this spirit of accusation, claim and grudge has spread with a swiftness that is remarkable… this form of dogmatic, vengeful liberalism may, among other things, at some stage risk undermining and even bringing down the whole liberal era.” Murray describes this leftist propensity for “making insincere claims and catastrophizing minute events” as the new ideological methodology to impose race-based judgments: “It took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.”
It’s not just race-based judgments; it’s gender too. Murray explains how, “There seems to be a move less intended to improve men than to neuter them, to turn any and all virtues around on them and turn them instead into self-doubting, self-loathing objects of pity. It looks, in a word, like some type of revenge.”
America’s future faces a clear fork in its constitutional road: should we move toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and continued progress on the trail of constitutional aspirations toward equality and healing, or, should we hurtle forward on a rocky trail of recrimination and falsehood, one so often used to mask a toxic coup for total domination?
Setting aside the moral views of the 16th-century, Americans must decide what their value system is in 2021. Whatever the morality of individual settlers, or disparate Native American tribes, the yearning for healing and growth stems from forgiveness and moving forward. Though this concept has been embraced by many faith traditions, we must fashion a “modern” definition for application, which one author has framed thusly:
‘[T]he modern concept of forgiveness,’ which is not a simple notion, but is part of a constellation of ethical and emotional concepts. First, in order for A to forgive B, B must have done wrong to A, bear some responsibility for that, acknowledge the wrong, and manifest remorse, confession, and a change of the self; and A must be aware of the wrong or be reminded of it.”
A horde of C’s (Social Justice Warriors) has descended on Vermont, invoking unnamed B’s (racist Vermonters who allegedly ejected blacks or Indians from their lands) to extract money from on behalf of dead A’s (the Abenakis, whose numbers now are minuscule). There are no B’s alive who did wrong to long-perished A’s, and no real justification for awarding land and money to Cs.
But even if there were evidence of a pattern of past oppression by all white Vermonters against Abenakis, is there any component whatsoever in all this language of “equity,” and “justice,” and “reparations” of a concept of forgiveness? Is this “social justice” ideology a philosophy of forgiveness and healing, or endless strife through unforgiveness? How much money or contrition can today’s white Vermonters offer BIPOC people to satisfy what was done by French and British people to Abenaki people 400 years ago? Can there ever be a point where forgiveness is achieved or even possible, and then perhaps America would return to that aspirational path of healing through the equality and mutual respect ensconced in the Constitution?
The irony in all this is that the desire to break endless cycles of violence and retribution is what motivated the actions of Samuel de Champlain—i.e. the colonizers. As Fischer wrote of Champlain:
He also recognized that Indian torture was also rational and functional in a very dark way. In the warrior cultures of North America, the continuing practice of torture was a way of guaranteeing a state of perpetual war. It meant that the work of retribution would always need to be done, and warriors would be needed to do it. For Champlain it was utterly destructive of peace and universal justice.
The fight for social justice, waged as it is today, will never achieve equity; that is a logistical impossibility. No philosophy can achieve a just end when fueled by unjust revenge. Vermont’s newly-arrived “social justice warriors” are the ultimate colonizers and capitalist opportunists, flocking to Vermont to extract a Shylockian pound of white flesh, exploiting the indigenous man as a fulcrum. Social justice ideology resembles the endless cycle of retribution embraced by warring Indian tribes; today’s white Vermonters are more akin to the peaceful Acadian tribes they plundered.
The question for Vermonters is not: “What was the morality of the Native Americans, or those who slew them?” The question for Vermonters (and Americans) remains: “Is our future one of forgiveness, or endless perpetual social war?”
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and the former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.