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Rutland Official's Facebook Post Ignites Anger Over Racism

A view of a downtown.
Nina Keck
VPR file
A Rutland Alderman's Facebook post has stirred up anger and debate about race relations.

A Facebook post by Rutland Alderman Paul Clifford has stirred up anger, frustration and heated debate about race relations in Rutland.

Clifford posted an old black and white photo of a poor white woman standing in a small kitchen with three children above a caption that reads, "White privilege — the ability to suffer life’s universal indignities without blaming another ethnic group.”

Clifford's Facebook page has more than 1,300 friends.

Melinda Humphrey, who serves on the board of aldermen with Clifford, shared the Facebook post Monday stating, “Wow, Alderman Paul Clifford, thanks for telling us how you really feel. So, there’s no question about it, I couldn’t disagree with you more."

Then Humprhey added, “PS, your privilege is showing.”

Former Rutland City alderman Greg Thayer blasted back at Humphrey on Facebook.

"I don't know you Ms. Humphrey," Thayer wrote, "but shame on you for making this an aldermatic problem. Paul Clifford was acting as a private U.S. citizen, exercising his Constitutional right under our First Amendment, and you made this political."

But Humphrey said in an interview Tuesday that she felt Clifford's post was not unrelated to his work as an alderman.

"Paul seemed proud to share the post and he thought it was hilarious, and I wanted other folks in the community to know that's how he felt," she said. "Aldermen make important decisions on behalf of city residents."

Lisa Ryan, Rutland’s only alderman of color, called Clifford's post deeply offensive.

"It causes divisiveness. It breaks up communities; it ruins relationships when people don't want to believe that it is very real and it is happening all the time and that there is this systemic problem." — Lisa Ryan, Rutland City Alderman

“At first, I was like, are you kidding me?” she said in a phone interview.

Ryan added that she and Clifford are Facebook friends, and after being alerted to the post, she said she checked to confirm it was from his page.

“I guess I was a little bit disappointed in Paul, and hurt,” she said. “But I wasn’t shocked. In a way it’s like, here we go again.”

Ryan said Clifford's post and the backlash shows how misunderstood and dangerous white privilege is.

“It causes divisiveness," she said. "It breaks up communities; it ruins relationships when people don’t want to believe that it is very real and it is happening all the time and that there is this systemic problem."

Clifford removed the meme from his Facebook page and wrote a short apology saying his post had included a poor choice of words and that he was sorry.

Before he removed that apology from his Facebook page Tuesday, there was a long list of comments supporting him and his original post, many from people who felt the backlash was another example of political correctness run amok. 

Paul Clifford did not want to be interviewed for this story, but he wrote a longer apology Tuesday which he shared with VPR:

"Many of you have seen the controversial meme that I posted on Facebook or have seen the news article regarding the post. I am writing to apologize to anyone I may have offended, to explain my thoughts on the post and to disclose what I have learned from this event.
I never intended to offend anyone by my post and I sincerely apologize to the people who were offended. My thoughts on the meme were to point out that many people who are white are not what I have always regarded as 'privileged.' Many are poor, struggling and lacking many of life’s basic necessities.
I have learned many things through this exchange. I have learned that, to many, the term 'white privilege' does not mean what I have always believed it to mean — primarily economic privilege. It also means the difference between the way races have been treated in the not too distant past, and in some cases, the way many are still being treated.
I have also learned that it is very difficult to understand the way African American, Jewish or Indian people feel about their past (and sometimes current) oppression unless you have experienced that same oppression.
Finally, I hope my apology is accepted and I hope that someday soon we will all accept each other, on the same level, without regard to race, gender, religion or ethnic heritage. That is certainly what I intend to strive toward."

Rutland Mayor Dave Allaire said he was not ready to comment on the matter.

Adlerman Melinda Humphrey brushed aside Clifford's apology.

"We can't keep saying things like this and just apologize and walk away," she said. "We need to engage and do the work to better understand how the things we say and do impact the people in our community."

Tabitha Moore is President of the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP. The group is hosting a workshop Saturday at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland from 9am to 2pm to help community members talk about racism. Moore said it could not have come at a better time.

"... for me, an apology is only heartfelt if you're willing to sit down and do the work so that it doesn't happen again. Otherwise, it's an empty apology." — Tabitha Moore, Rutland NAACP President

Julio Thompson, Director of the Civil Rights Unit for the Vermont Attorney General's Office and Bor Yang, Executive Director and legal council for Vermont's Human Right's Commission, will present information on what a community can and can't do in response to difficult, divisive issues. 

"For example,  if you see a Confederate flag flying in your neighborhood, what can you do; what should you, and what can't you do?" Moore said.

Moore said she reached out personally to Paul Clifford on Tuesday to sit down with him.

"Because for me, an apology is only heartfelt if you're willing to sit down and do the work so that it doesn't happen again," Moore said. "Otherwise, it's an empty apology."

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