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As Hartford Vt. Faces Racism, Tough Choices Lay Ahead

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Hartford resident John Hall says some of the discussions aorund racial bias in Hartford have been difficult, but he thinks the town is moving forward in encouraging more diversity.

After a racially insensitive cartoon sparked a year-long discussion on inequality, the Upper Valley town of Hartford has released its plan for more fully embracing diversity in the community.

It’s been a little over a year since a former Hartford selectboard member sent out an email with a racially insensitive cartoon of former President Barack Obama.

The email set off a firestorm in Hartford, and as a result, the town put together a group — the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality — to try to help the community heal and move forward.

Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality chairman John Hall says the cartoon was just the starting point for a deep and serious look at how structural racism plays out in people’s everyday lives.

“So it’s not just an email to me, and addressing it wasn’t about addressing an email,” Hall said. “It was about addressing a line of thought that goes back hundreds of years that is very deep and bloody.”

The committee’s work was difficult at times: Three committee members resigned after some tough conversations about how racism can play into people’s decisions and perceptions without them even knowing it.

“I’ve encountered a lot of opinions that the committee is like rooting out racism, or calling out racist people,” said Hall. “And the idea of structural racism, or implicit bias, and white supremacy, have had to be explained over and over again. And that examination includes using the word “racism.” And that scares people. That word.”

Last week, the committee presented its recommendations to the Hartford selectboard, and they include having town officials take cultural diversity training, and for the town to adopt a new policy on equity and inclusion.

"The idea of structural racism, or implicit bias, and white supremacy, have had to be explained over and over again. And that examination includes using the word 'racism.' And that scares people. That word." — John Hall, committee chairman

“I think what we’re talking about is a town doing some soul searching and looking into what it takes to become as hospitable to people of color as we can possibly be,” says Hartford selectboard chairman Simon Dennis.

As tough as the past year has been, Dennis says the really hard work is just beginning.

He says he hopes Hartford can now look at the policies around hiring, housing, business development and policing that encourage a more inclusive community.

“The conversation around race in the town of Hartford is not at this point a conversation about the overt forms of racism,” said Dennis. “It’s more a question about the institutional racism and the way in which it becomes in the drinking water, if you will, to have a unconscious bias or preference in favor of the experience and understanding and needs of the dominant culture.”

The Selectboard has scheduled a special meeting on April 11 to discuss the committee’s recommendations.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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