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Ram: Thoughts For MLK Day

Ben DeFlorio
Ram discusses issues and the future of their community in a curbside conversation with Randolph residents in 2016.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, Dr. King responded to a group of white clergymen who penned a letter expressing their support for his cause, but not for the tactics of nonviolent resistance he was deploying.
He wrote:  "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice." He goes on to say: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

We often reflect on the words and deeds of this great civil rights leader that call us to service and unity. But there’s also a deep need in this moment to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations about the realities in our state. One of our only black lawmakers resigned because of targeted hate speech and threats. Saturday Night Live parodied the fact that many people of color feel excluded from Vermont’s pastoral, nostalgic self-image. The Vermont Supreme Court has just handed down a major opinion that racial profiling by police officers can come with a financial liability to the State of Vermont. And a recent poll revealed that nearly half of Vermonters responding consider racism to be a small or nonexistent problem in Vermont today [Link: VPR-Vermont PBS Poll].

The first step in addressing a problem is agreeing there is one. And there are consequences to turning a blind eye to the plight of Vermonters of color. Institutional racism is expensive, slows the economy, affects tourism, and stunts our future population growth. We need to get this right not just to thrive, but even to survive.

Today and every day, we should ask ourselves whether we’re simply engaged in shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance of addressing racism, or are doing the difficult work of deep empathy and active engagement. Things may have to get worse before they get better, and we’re all sure to make mistakes along the way. But if we learn from them we’ll remove a great stumbling block in our collective stride toward freedom.

Updated 6:27 p.m. 1/30/2019 The article was originally published without the link to the VPR-Vermont PBS Poll.

Kesha Ram is a former state legislator and the interim director of the Center for Whole Communities in Burlington. She will study in the Master of Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this fall.
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