Xusana Davis Is on a Campaign to Root Out Racial Bias in Vermont | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Xusana Davis Is on a Campaign to Root Out Racial Bias in Vermont


Published March 3, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 6, 2021 at 6:12 p.m.

Xusana Davis - COURTESY
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  • Xusana Davis

Xusana Davis would love to lose her job.

Vermont's first executive director of racial equity says nothing would please her more than if state leaders told her they no longer needed someone working to eradicate systemic racism in state government.

"I have a bottle of Champagne waiting for that day," Davis told lawmakers recently. "Because the point of equity work is, we want to put ourselves out of business."

For now, however, the 32-year-old from New York State seems to have enough work to last a lifetime as she confronts the pervasive racial inequities plaguing the second-whitest state in the nation.

Vermonters of color are three times more likely than white residents to get COVID-19 and twice as likely to be hospitalized when they do. They're underrepresented in state government jobs in general and upper management in particular. And they endure harassment, especially if they are public officials or perceived to be from out of state.

Those are just a few of the conclusions in Davis' January report to the legislature outlining the challenges facing not just her, but all Vermonters, as the state confronts the racial bias embedded in institutions.

Last year was particularly tumultuous, and Davis' insights were in high demand. Now, she and her supporters are seeking to expand the Office of Racial Equity. Davis is currently the sole staffer.

Gov. Phil Scott, who appointed Davis in June 2019, has set aside $250,000 in his proposed budget to send Davis reinforcements. If lawmakers approve, she would get a full-time policy and research analyst, as well as an outreach and education coordinator.

Racial justice advocates say the new positions would be crucial to help Davis fulfill not only her original role of addressing racism in state government, but additional, urgent responsibilities thrust upon her because of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning at the core of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Until recently, Davis has been hesitant to publicly push for more staff, noting that others are capably making the case. She enjoys the strong support of Scott but also recognizes the fiscal realities and political sensitivities around calling for tripling the size of her own office.

And she's acutely aware that racial equity funding should also be directed elsewhere to create more equitable law enforcement, education, health care and housing, among other pressing needs.

A newcomer who says she still feels a bit out of place in Vermont, Davis is urging lawmakers to make their funding decisions based not on her performance — which is winning rave reviews — but on the need to expand the office's capacity, regardless of who is at the helm.

"I want to make sure that this role is established in its own right, not as a result of who and how I am as a person and as a professional," Davis told Seven Days.

The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Davis identifies as Latina. She speaks Spanish fluently and often kicks off public testimony with a buoyant "¡Buenos días!"

The spelling and pronunciation of her first name offer clues about her heritage. It's pronounced "Suess-ON-ah." In the New York City suburbs of her youth, people butchered it.

"In school, I had people coming over the [public address system] saying, 'Yes, hello. Can you send Ex-andrea to the principal's office?'" Davis recalled with a laugh. "It's like, You just added a D, R and an E for no reason!"

The Dominican Republic, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, has a complex racial history as a former Spanish colonial power with a sugar plantation economy that exploited Native and African peoples. Davis' racial radar, whether rooted in her Dominican heritage, formative years in middle-class New York suburbs or professional experience in the most diverse city in the world, is sensitive and penetrating.

When people declare themselves "native" Vermonters, Davis is apt to ask, without missing a beat, whether they mean that they are Abenaki. When someone refers to the dairy industry as the backbone of the state's economy, she points out that it's supported by a largely undocumented Latino workforce.

And when a public official blithely suggested that perhaps Black people should join the ranks of police instead of criticizing them — as Waterbury Selectboard member Chris Viens did last year — Davis suggested that law enforcement's "para-militaristic slave-catching history" may be an impediment.

Davis presents those in power with uncomfortable truths in ways that invite solutions rather than trigger defenses. That has won her fans both in Montpelier and in advocacy circles.

Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie (D-Hartford) calls her a "rock star." Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) marveled at her tirelessness.

"I can't imagine the energy and the commitment that it took to get this far in this little time and in these circumstances," White told Davis in January.

She has also impressed racial equity advocates with her ability to coordinate the work of various advisory panels, said Etan Nasreddin-Longo, chair of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel. Adding two staffers would help dispel any impression that Davis' position is a token nod to racial equity instead of a true commitment, he said.

"I'm a huge fan, I have to say," he said of Davis.

While she has worked mightily to bend the moral arc of state government toward justice, to borrow phrasing from Martin Luther King Jr., she's done so from within parameters set by an overwhelmingly white legislature and a white Republican governor at whose pleasure she serves, said Burlington activist Mark Hughes.

"I think it's important everyone understands that our racial equity executive director is working under just some really incredibly difficult conditions," Hughes said, adding that she is doing so with "poise, kindness and a sense of humor."

While Davis appreciates the warm reception she has received and expresses gratitude for the job, she admits the transition has been challenging.

"Racial equity work, generally, is not enjoyable for me," she said. "It's emotionally taxing to take a job that requires you to have to prove your humanity to people repeatedly."

Those who advocate for social justice have a range of interests and don't always want to focus on the racism, sexism and myriad other inequities plaguing society, she said. For example, she's a foodie and loves animals. She's also an attorney with a degree from New York Law School and an interest in civil liberties law.

Davis had experience with racial equity issues while working in New York City, first as the director of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus of the city council and more recently as a director of health and housing strategic initiatives for the city's health department. But she never envisioned working solely on racial equity.

"It certainly wasn't a goal of mine to say, 'I want to focus on one of the most devastating, divisive and stressful topics, all day, every day, in a state where so few people share my identity in that way, and leave a place where that was not the case,'" Davis said.

And yet that's exactly what she did. She was drawn to Vermont largely by the promise of greater personal space, not just by the job. She zealously guards her privacy even as she occupies an increasingly high-profile leadership position in state government. She declined to name the Lamoille County town where she lives and turned down Seven Days' request to photograph her.

Her position is a cabinet-level post in Scott's administration. Scott vetoed a previous bill that would have given the office independence, claiming that would have usurped his executive authority and that the office would have lacked accountability.

The statutory job description calls for her "to identify and work to eradicate systemic racism" in all three branches of government. This includes "overseeing the statewide collection of race-based data" to help assess discrimination and conducting trainings "regarding the nature and scope of systemic racism and the institutionalized nature of race-based bias."

As if that weren't enough, nine months after she was hired, a pandemic disproportionately harming BIPOC communities swept into the state. Two months later, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, or, as Davis told lawmakers, "another person in the United States was murdered on camera by the government."

After that, she and others involved in equity work "were absolutely flooded" with inquiries and pleas for help from around the state. "It became something that was both exhilarating and overwhelming," Davis told lawmakers.

So much of governance — law enforcement, land use, education — takes place at the local level that it would be naïve to think that confronting it solely in state systems would accomplish much, she said. Local advocacy groups also play a huge role in racial equity work, and Davis believes supporting them is a key function of her job.

It has been lawmakers, however, who have made her job unmanageable, adding innumerable reports, testimony, and service on more than a dozen boards, commissions and panels to her role during 2020.

Watching this unfold, Rep. Christie renewed calls to get Davis the help she needed. With COVID-19 raging, it didn't happen last session. "We didn't put our money where our heart was," Christie said.

His bill to change that, H.196, seems to be gaining the traction it needs, largely because lawmakers finally seem to recognize that a single person cannot indefinitely sustain such a range of duties, he said.

Last year, some in the legislature resisted adding funding. That should not surprise anyone, but it is unconscionable, said Nasreddin-Longo. "Historically, when issues around equity come up, the next issue that gets raised is scarcity," he told Seven Days. The argument that the state can't afford to do more is, in itself, a form of white supremacy, he said.

Decisions on investing in racial equity work need to take into account historic investments to maintain an economy built on slavery and oppression, he said. "An enormous amount of capital has historically been used to maintain systems of commerce, of government, of social order in general that are in some ways supported by white supremacy, right?" he told Seven Days. "You cannot expect to undo this with a negligible investment."

Some people would like to do more than just add a couple of staffers to Davis' office.

Hughes, the Burlington activist, is pushing for a greater investment in a robust data-collection system. He also thinks Davis' office should be independent from the governor, which would allow its employees to speak and act more freely. He noted that, in legislative testimony, Davis dodged a question of whether she wished she had independence.

"Why? Because she is a political appointee. Because she works for the governor, so she can't say that!" Hughes said.

Davis doesn't seem terribly constrained in her self-expression, however. She has opined on the systemic racism implicit in school discipline, drug policy, home ownership rates, the U.S. Census and the "xenophobia" that some Vermonters tend to show toward perceived outsiders.

Some at a January meeting of the state's new Climate Council raised their eyebrows when Davis suggested the panel consider slowing down its work to fully consider the BIPOC communities likely to be disproportionately affected by new policies. Non-inclusive public processes can themselves be a form of white supremacy, she warned.

And some lawmakers clearly chafe at her characterizations of racial bias. First-term Rep. Arthur Peterson (R-Clarendon) challenged her suggestion during a meeting of the House Health Care Committee that Black patients are routinely under-prescribed opioids.

She backed up her point with a page from a medical textbook — since removed in a revision — that claimed Black patients "often report higher pain intensity than other cultures." Peterson, a white Republican grandfather from a rural area south of Rutland who campaigned in part on banning public schools from flying Black Lives Matter flags, said he "can't imagine" doctors would under-prescribe pain medication.

"I just find that very, very difficult to swallow," Peterson said before declaring that racist people don't make a system racist.

"I think the field is level," Peterson said. "I think people need to be changed." He declined an interview request.

Davis said after the meeting that the exchange reflected dominant groups' tendency to exonerate institutions and instead blame individuals for instances of racism.

That, she said, is what needs to change.

"The big question is," she said, "are people willing to challenge their worldview in pursuit of accuracy and just outcomes, or are people expecting the world to bend to their worldview?"

Correction, March 4, 2021: Xusana Davis identifies as Latina. A previous version of this story contained an error.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Race for Equity | Xusana Davis may get reinforcements for her campaign to root out racial bias in Vermont"