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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Vermont Senators Debate Whether Racism Causes Statistical Lags


Published May 5, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 18, 2021 at 2:35 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Tim Newcomb

When Vermont Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock (R-Franklin), who is Black, spoke last Thursday to fellow senators, his words may have been music to some people's ears, but he appeared to be out of tune with the majority of his fellow lawmakers.

Brock and colleagues had just heard a speech by Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) seeking support for H.210, "An act relating to addressing disparities and promoting equity in the health care system." 

Hardy, who is white, told the Senate the state's health care system fails to meet the needs of all Vermonters, especially those who have been discriminated against in the past. To right that wrong, she said, the bill would help build a more "inclusive system." It would create an advisory commission on health equity that would include members selected by organizations representing racial, ethnic and sexual minority groups. That group would advise on the creation of a new Office of Health Equity in the Department of Health, an upgrade from the department's current sole minority health officer, providing more authority and resources.

Brock, a former state auditor and Republican nominee for governor in 2012, expressed deep skepticism about H.210. 

"There's a tremendous push ... often, in which if you find a group of people who are not doing as well as others, to blame it on discriminatory conduct, on racism or similar kinds of activities. And there's this disparity [between] ... outcomes and the explanation of why those things occurred," the Swanton resident said.

Brock has led a more privileged life than many Black people — and many white people, for that matter. Educated at Middlebury College and Yale University, Brock became a high-level executive at Fidelity Investments. Before he retired, he commuted to work daily by plane from Burlington to Boston. During the recent Senate debate, he argued against dividing racial minorities, LGBTQ people or those with disabilities into discrete populations that are subject to discrimination.

"Our motto as a state is 'Freedom and Unity'; it's not freedom and diversity," Brock said. "I see us going down a slippery slope in which, instead of 'Freedom and Unity,' we are promoting freedom and the creation of a whole bunch of quote, communities, unquote, as opposed to the community that we ought to be focusing on, and that's Vermont."

Brock's speech echoed sentiments expressed a day earlier by the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate in response to President Joe Biden's address to Congress. 

"From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven't made any progress, by doubling down on the divisions we've worked so hard to heal," said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). "Hear me clearly. America is not a racist country. It's backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination."

After Brock spoke to his Vermont Senate colleagues, it was Sen. Kesha Ram's (D-Chittenden) turn. She said the need to address health disparities was demonstrated powerfully by how the COVID-19 crisis had affected Black and white Vermonters differently.

"In October of 2020, at the height of the pandemic ... we had a disparity in the COVID infection rate that had Black Vermonters at 10 times the infection rate of white Vermonters," Ram said, adding soon after, "More than anything else, the Department of Health highlighted systemic racism as underlying the disparities in this pandemic."

One factor, Ram said, was mistrust among some Black people for "a health care system that has long not just marginalized Black Americans but has experimented on them."

One notorious example was the Tuskegee Institute syphilis study. In 1932, employees of the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 400 sharecroppers with syphilis; they were denied treatment, and many died during the 40-year period the "experiment" ran, even after a cure for the disease was found.

Ram, whose father emigrated from India and who has made issues affecting people of color central to her work as a senator, urged her colleagues to recognize other factors, as well: "a lack of access to health care, being more likely to work frontline jobs, and the deep disparities that have plagued our nation since it was founded on enslavement and subjugation."

Yes, enslavement and subjugation — those things and a promise of equality. We're still working on that last part. So it's a good thing that, after listening to Hardy and Brock and Ram, the Senate voted to advance the bill by a voice vote. It got final approval last Friday.

Now, if you're one of those people who think the worst problem with race relations in America is "wokeness," you should skip to the next item in this week's column.

When we spoke earlier this week, Hardy said lawmakers had been struggling with the best language to use in writing the bill. The measure repeatedly uses the term "non-White" to describe the minority groups it is designed to assist. Backers hope the new advisory commission will suggest a different term because, she said, "'non-White' centers whiteness" and implies that others deviate from the standard.

Getting one's head around this stuff may take something else the bill calls for: "cultural humility." That, the bill says, "means the ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented, or open to the other, in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the client or patient." The new advisory commission is directed to advise lawmakers on how "cultural competency, cultural humility and antiracism" can be incorporated into training and continuing education for health professionals.

In other words: Hey, Doc, try to put yourself in your patient's shoes, even if that patient has much darker skin than you or an accent that originates in a different part of the world.

Some people will tell you how this stuff drives them nuts and what a burden it is to be expected to think about it. I'd say that, as impositions go, it doesn't quite match nearly 250 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow. If you don't want to be at least a little bit woke, go take a nap. Maybe the world will be a better place when you open your eyes.

Newfane Calling?

The Burlington Free Press may not be the nation's greatest daily newspaper, but in long-ago better days, the paper was respected and relied on by many in the community, despite its ownership by the distant Gannett.

Now, the paper's new corporate owners — Gannett merged with New Media Investment Group in 2019, though it kept the Gannett name — have stooped to the petty dishonesty of telemarketers as they try to shore up its circulation. (The Freeps, which once sold more than 50,000 newspapers a day, now sells fewer than 12,000.)

A work colleague got a call last week from a number he didn't recognize, but since his phone said the call was from Newfane, Vt., he picked up.

A telemarketer said, "Hi, my name is Jane, and I'm calling on a recorded line from the Burlington Free Press." She offered a subscription deal, which my colleague declined. And "Jane," it turned out, wasn't calling "from" the Burlington Free Press, or even from Vermont. When asked, she said she was dialing from St. Paul, Minn. She offered no explanation for why the call was listed as coming from an 802 number in Newfane.

This is sad. The Freeps' telemarketing strategy — fooling people into answering the phone — is a common one, but we expect more from an industry whose public service is so important that it is protected by the First Amendment. Well, at least we expect more than we do from the scam artists who call and tell me the warranty on my months-old car is about to expire. Among the expectations for a newspaper is that it tries to tell the truth, both in its journalism and its business dealings.

Gannett did not reply to a request for comment sent through the Free Press.

But one thing's clear: If the Free Press ever wants to connect with a broad swath of Vermonters again, it needs to think local and authentic.

Brady's Bunch

When Washington, D.C., lawyer and conservative activist Victoria Toensing was served with a search warrant by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week, her last name likely rang a bell with some Vermonters.

Agents took possession of Toensing's cellphone, part of an investigation that led to raids the same day on the New York City office and home of Rudy Giuliani, personal lawyer to former president Donald Trump.

Toensing is the mother of Brady Toensing, who until 2019 split his time between his home in Charlotte, Vt., and Washington, D.C., where he was a partner in the law firm that bears the name of his mother and stepfather, Joseph diGenova.

In Vermont, Brady Toensing was vice chair of the state Republican Party, led Trump's 2016 campaign in the state and for years was the scourge of Vermont liberal politicians, demanding investigations into their alleged misdeeds.

Among the allegations was that Jane O'Meara Sanders had inflated donor pledges to the now-defunct Burlington College, of which she was president, to secure financing for the college to buy the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington's former headquarters property. He also alleged that her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had improperly pressured a bank to give the college the loan. Federal authorities investigated and dropped the matter without charges.

In 2019, Trump's attorney general, William Barr, tapped Brady Toensing to be senior counsel in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Policy. Not much has been heard from him since then in Vermont. His LinkedIn profile shows he rejoined diGenova and Toensing in February, following the change in administrations. He did not reply to a text from Fair Game asking about the search warrant served on his mother.

The New York Times described Victoria Toensing as "close to Mr. Giuliani." Her law firm said she is not a target of the investigation involving Giuliani. But she still had to hand over her cellphone. So if anyone's tempted to say to her son, "B.T., phone home," it might be tough.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Disparities Debate"

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