Editor’s note: This commentary is by Shayne Spence of Johnson. He is vice chair of Johnson’s Republican Committee.
Frequently, in my conversations about systemic racism, I am asked to show examples of systemic racism in today’s world.
Many, especially those who lived through the civil rights movement in the 1960s, feel like once that movement achieved its culmination in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the work of racial justice was complete.
While the work of previous generations was undeniably important and groundbreaking, systemic racism exists in Vermont to this day. One of the most glaring examples of systemic racism in society today is disparities in homeownership.
Recently, in Vermont’s largest county, a study was done to compare homeownership numbers for Black Vermonters vs. white Vermonters. That study found that, while 64% of white Vermonters in Chittenden County owned their home, the same is true for only 17% of Black Vermonters.
It’s easy to write these off as symptoms of nonsystemic factors, but doing so would ignore a significant amount of the history of homeownership. A lot of people have this romantic notion that they “earned” everything they have in their lives, and I do not mean to discount people’s hard work, but in this country, homeownership has been heavily subsidized. And for many years, that subsidization was reserved, as a matter of both public and private policy, for white people.
The 17%-64% disparity is the downstream result of that racist policy decision, a policy decision that had impacts on the lives of Black people living still today. A person who was denied a housing loan in the years before 1968 because of the color of their skin was also denied a significant amount of upward mobility, as well as a tool to build generational wealth.
In fact, studies have shown that such a denial would lead to the typical Black family losing out on $212,000 over the next 40 years. And while redlining was outlawed in 1968 under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and restricted further in the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, the practice continues today as “reverse redlining,” whereby banks offer predatory, high-interest loans in formerly redlined neighborhoods, while offering lower-interest loans in nearby neighborhoods.
One could certainly make the argument that this denial of access to publicly funded programs is cause for some form of reparations — though that is a topic for another day.
The truly sad thing about all of this is that the Vermont Democratic Party, while talking a big game about racial equity, remains unwilling to make the decisions that would allow this disparity to lessen. Their unwillingness to reform Act 250 in ways that would encourage housing development holds back both public and private actors seeking to alleviate the issue.
Gov. Phil Scott has made several proposals that would make it easier for affordable housing to be built in rural areas, which would encourage people of all types to flock to Vermont, but they have been rejected out-of-hand by the Legislature. Whether that is because the idea would not work, or due to pure political gamesmanship, we will never know, because the Legislature refuses to even take these ideas up for a full debate.
I will never claim to have all the answers on these tough issues, but one thing is for sure — a continued regime of one-party rule in Vermont has not solved this issue, and shows no signs of doing so in the future.
If Vermonters want to see the type of creative thinking required to solve this and other major issues we face, we can’t keep empowering a comfortable supermajority with no incentives to change their ways. We must seek balanced voices in Montpelier, voices that will look beyond the commands of party leadership for the answers that help Vermonters of all kinds.