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It’s taking a lifetime to correct this bias

‘My elementary education — about the founding of the United States, in particular — was all about the Europeans who came and conquered, bringing freedom and democracy to all. And I believed it, even though it’s not true’

Deborah Lee Luskin (deborahleeluskin.com) is a writer, educator, speaker, and blogger.

Williamsville

How is it that until this year, I didn’t know about Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day the news of the Emancipation Proclamation made it to Texas, then a remote outpost?

How is it that until this year, I didn’t know that Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Vermont since 2008?

How is it that I grew up celebrating not just Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America, but also the man himself, a man who enslaved the residents who were already living in the so-called New World?

How is it that I can be highly educated and yet so ignorant of so much?

The Answer: Implicit bias.

My elementary education — about the founding of the United States, in particular — was all about the Europeans who came and conquered, bringing freedom and democracy to all. And I believed it, even though it’s not true.

The original framing of the Constitution included the three-fifths compromise, which allowed three out of every five slaves to be counted as people for purposes of enumeration in the census, in order to give Southern states more electoral power.

The original framing of the Constitution didn’t acknowledge any members of the indigenous nations whose land this was. And the original framers of the Constitution ignored the half of all humanity that’s female.

When I was in elementary school, this information was presented as normal; in second grade, I even thought I was related to the Pilgrims, who I’d learned came to America seeking religious freedom.

It’s taking me a lifetime to correct this bias, and I’m just getting started.

* * *

I’ve embarked on a long-overdue course of self-education by reading, which is what I’m professionally trained to do. Here’s an annotated list of some of the books I’ve read, and a much longer list of books on my pile of books to be read.

One of the most important books I’ve found about race in the United States so far is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a Pulitzer Prize–winning account of African Americans leaving the South for New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 20th century, seeking safety and opportunity within their own country.

Known as the Great Migration, it is the second story of displacement for so many African Americans whose ancestors were stolen and shipped to North America as slaves, beginning in the earliest days of British colonization.

I always took solace from my northern roots, but being from the North does not give me a pass on implicit bias. First of all, slavery existed in the north. And while Vermont can take some pride in being the first state to prohibit slavery in its constitution and for running a line of the Underground Railroad to Canada, Vermont is also a place where racial prejudice has existed a long time.

It’s well-documented in Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, a history of an 18th-century family that moved out of slavery in Massachusetts and into freedom and bigotry in Vermont.

The Princes had been slaves in Deerfield, Mass. Abijah Prince’s owner freed him; he purchased Lucy Terry’s freedom. They married and moved to a farm in Guilford.

The Princes worked hard and were successful until their white neighbors set their barn on fire. Lucy Prince took the neighbors to court.

Ugly outbreaks of overt racism have waxed and waned in Vermont. The Ku Klux Klan was active here in the early 1920s. In 2016, a Black Lives Matter flag was stolen from the flagpole in front of the Davis Center at the University of Vermont.

You can learn about this overt racist act in Black Lives Matter at the University of Vermont: Raise a Flag of Revolution, an excellent film made by UVM students and available on YouTube.

More recently, some person or persons vandalized the new Black Lives Matter mural in front of the State House in Montpelier. A multiracial group of more than 200 community members painted the mural on a Saturday; on Sunday, the mural was vandalized. Footage from a security camera shows a middle-aged white man defacing it.

But there are other kinds of racism here as well: a 2017 study showed both that Black and Hispanic drivers in Vermont were more likely than White drivers to be stopped and searched by state and local police, yet they were half as likely to be found with contraband than White drivers.

It is exactly this: being suspicious of someone on account of their skin color — by police, by shopkeepers, by passersby, by you and me.

I’m now reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about being Black in the United States. The book was published in 2015; this is an account of how things are now for parents of sons with dark skin. As if parenting weren’t hard enough.

I’m also reading White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, by Tim Wise, a memoir about race written by a 36-year-old privileged white man. I’ve just cracked the cover, and already I’ve learned that not having to think about race is a sign of my own racism.

* * *

I’m reading two books at a time because I have a lot of learning to do and because I’ve borrowed them from the library. I’m reading the books as they become available, as there are waiting lists for most of these books, indicating that I’m not alone in this effort of self-education.

The titles I’m waiting for include (in no particular order): White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,by Robin DiAngelo; White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson; Women, Race & Class, by Angela Y. Davis; Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World, by Layla F. Saad; How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.

Also available free on YouTube through June is Just Mercy, the story of Bryan Stevenson and the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative, dedicated to those trapped in a legal system that is neither colorblind nor fair.

Finally, we have just past June 19: Juneteenth, celebrating notification of Lincoln’s famous order abolishing slavery, which had been signed a year and a half earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was not the great liberating document that I had learned it was: It applied only to slaves in Confederate states, and it was dependent upon the Union winning a military victory over the South.

Now, 157 years later, it’s time not just to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but to liberate all of us from our racist ways.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #567 (Wednesday, June 24, 2020). This story appeared on page B4.

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