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Changing Times: Reconciliation or Retribution

By the Rev. Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

The following is a transcript of a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas delivered in Randolph, Vermont on October 23, 2019. Co-sponsored by the Randolph Forum on Racial Equality (FORE) and the Rutland Area NAACP, the Rev. Thomas’s presentation was part of the “Racism in America” discussion and potluck series frequently publicized on the Diocesan Website. (Join us for the next event on December 3!) The full text is provided online with permission from Rev. Thomas.

I begin with a familiar song by Bob Dylan that I invite you to join me in singing, because its prophetic words ring ever so true today.

Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam,
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown,
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone,
If your time to you is worth savin’.
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a-changin’.

In January 2001 I was invited to the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast, sponsored by Saint Cyprian Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Boston, Massachusetts. It attracted city, state and national officials including Mayor Menino, Governor Cellucci, and Senator John Kerry.

During my remarks, I mentioned that my understanding of biblical prophecy was that it had to occur within a generation, around 20-25 years. And based on that understanding, I offered my own prophetic view of the first 20 years of the new millennium, and suspected that America would elect its first black president during that time. Now, while Kerry, who would later become a 2004 presidential candidate and serve as Obama’s Secretary of State, Obama at the time was nowhere on the political radar screen, nor was any other black politician. So, the audience was noticably surprised at my remarks.

And while this bit of prophecy was intended to offer a ray of hope following the disputed 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush won the executive office though Al Gore won the popular vote, it came as well with somber news that life would get worse for people of color before it got better. For the election of a black president would elicit such a negative reaction from white voters determined to preserve that status quo, that every effort would be devised to prevent such an event from ever happening again.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we are living in the aftermath of a two-term Obama presidency, during which he won the 2008 election with just 43% of white votes and the 2012 election with just 39% of white votes; and during which a conservative Republican, predominantly white congress, did everything possible to prevent the nation’s first black president from forwarding his agenda for the country. And now, nearly 20 years later, we are living in the wake of a presidency which, like Bush, won the white house through the Electoral College and without the majority of popular consent, that continues to promote an agenda that attempts to dismantle everything the previous administration tried to enact.

Former Republican Senator of Arizona, Jeff Flakes, in a recent National Public Radio interview with reporter Mary Louise Kelly, said that his party concluded after the 2012 elections that it had to appeal to a more racially and ethnically diverse segment of America, but then left that decision behind to follow the narrowly focused agenda of the far right. (July 15, 2019) This agenda represented an outspoken segment of the population that was afraid of the perspectives and policies that a more racially and ethnically diverse America would bring to the legislative, leadership and decision-making process of our democracy.

Is This Just a Far-Right Agenda?

Now while the agenda of the far right might be narrowly focused, the question I raise to white Americans in this room and throughout the country is whether this agenda represents only the far right. Let’s take a look at the data.

In 2016, 61.4% of Americans qualified to vote (137.5 million) exercised their right to do so (a decent showing in that anything over 60% is favorable). According to the Pew Research Center, 65.3% of eligible non-Hispanic white voters participated and, of that participation, 58% voted for Trump and 37% voted for Clinton. Of the overall number of whites who voted for Trump, 54% of white males favored Trump. And while Clinton captured the majority women voters, more white women (47%) voted for Trump than Clinton (45%). In fact, white Americans, in general, have repeatedly favored the more conservative agendas of the Republican Party over the more liberal agendas of the Democratic Party, and the reason tends to be, according to Hillary Clinton, the marriage factor. Women married to men side with policies that favor their husband’s employment opportunities and corporate advantages as bread-winners. (Lucia Graves, The Guardian, September 25, 2017)

It should also be noted that 79% of Asian Americans favored Clinton in 2016 over Trump (18%), according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and 66% of Latin Americans voted for Clinton over Trump (28%)

Voting patterns tend to indicate that a majority of white Americans do not favor the presidential candidates a majority of people of color prefer. Why is this?

Is it the political policies people of color mostly endorse?

  • Universal Health Care                            
  • Tuition-Free Public College Education   
  • Gun Control                                            
  • Living Wage                                           
  • Job Security                                           
  • Pro-Choice                                             
  • Eco-Friendly Economic Growth              

These are policies favored by the majority of Americans across the racial divides. The major concerns and fears among white people lie with who controls the agenda racially.

Such fears are incited by a report, premised upon the US Census Bureau, combined with the research of the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, and demographer William Fry of the Brookings Institute, who forecast that the times are changing; that by 2044, America will comprise a majority of people of color. Non-Hispanic whites will cease to the majority population. This reality has already occurred in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas, where not only the majority of the population, but the majority of eligible voters are people of color. During the 2020s, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey will join their ranks. In the 2030s, Alaska, Louisiana, and New York will follow, with Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Virginia trailing close behind in the 2040s. The wave will mostly move from the South and Southwest encompassing most of the northern states no later than 2060.

But even by 2060, when most of the country has made this transition, upper New England – Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – will remain the whitest states in the nation.

How is this forecast received along political party lines?

Another Pew Research Center survey revealed that 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view the prospected people of color majority in a negative light, while 40% of Republicans believe such change will either be positive or have no impact at all.

As for Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, 22% said that a people of color majority would weaken American culture, while 75% of Democrats believe that this change will have either a positive impact or no impact at all.

The fear of this changing demographic seems to reflect the conservative leaning of white Americans.

What are other policy and procedural shifts that could accompany this demographic change?

Economist Valerie Wilson, in a report for the Economic Policy Institute (March 9, 2016) said that by 2032, based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and trends in college completion by race and ethnicity, more than a decade before people of color make up the nation’s majority, people of color will comprise the majority of the working class (those without college degrees). As a result, greater measures will be pursued to resolve wage stagnation and economic inequality through policies aimed at raising living standards for the working class. Because the working class will be a majority of people of color, raising working class living standards will require bridging racial and ethnic divides.

The best way to advance policies that raise living standards for working people is for diverse groups to recognize they share more in common than not, and to work together toward:

  • Full employment and equal pay for equal work                                
  • Universal child care and early childhood education
  • Stronger collective bargaining (the re-emergence of unions)
  • Higher minimum wages
  • Voting rights protections
  • Reforms to immigration and criminal justice systems

In other words, policies that will benefit everyone, including white people. But this is not the narrative most white Americans, divided along racial, ethnic and class divisions are hearing.

How Prepared are White Americans for Change?

White Americans, for the most part, are ill-equipped in preparing for life in a nation where the majority of citizens are people of color. The reason for this is that even the most progressive-minded among you have lived most of your lives in segregated residential, working, educational and social environments in which people of your race have set the standards of behavior and determined the priority of concerns to which people of other races and ethnicities had to adjust and assimilate.

A recent survey of the Public Religion Research Institute supports my position in its findings that 75% of white people don’t have any friends of color. For me, this was evident even in New York City, which served as my second home for over seven years. Even in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world, racially segregated and economically gated communities defined the lifestyle of this urban setting.

Now if segregated living is the unfortunate reality in which most white Americans are reared, you can comprehend the greater magnitude of this problem as it applies to upper New England, the whitest region of the country, and particularly Vermont.

As a result, while most white Americans, from 2045-2060, will be painfully adjusting to, and in many cases resisting, this demographic shift, Vermont will be seen as a refuge for white flight from what they feel as racism by people of color.

Now “racism” is defined as “prejudice plus power.” We all probably harbor some degree of prejudice toward another ethnic or racial group based on the stereotypes and distorted impressions that have influenced us. But when our prejudice is empowered by political, financial, military, and legal forces that enable us to enforce our fears, suspicions, mistrust and hatred upon others preventing them from attaining the privileges we enjoy, then our prejudice, combined with power, becomes racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, islamophobia, or other forms of bigotry and oppression.

A 2016 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 57% of white Americans believed that discrimination against them was as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans and other minorities. A 2017 Gen-Forward poll of white millennials found 48% shared the same feeling, showing that this sentiment crossed generations, and is probably shared by some of you here. But this is the same sentiment that feeds the growing momentum and resurgence of alt-right and white supremacist organizations that claim they’re not racist, they’re just affirming and trying to protect their own.

Unless you, as citizens of this state, take seriously this growing sentiment developing within and beyond this state – one of the whitest states in the union; and unless you move proactively in countering these prejudicial fears with excitement and hope that comes from honest multicultural and interracial interaction, you will continue to be ill-equipped and grossly unprepared for life in a nation where the majority of its citizens are people of color. You will become part of a festering wound of discrimination that has never healed, rather than the balm or salve that, according to the African American Spiritual, heals the “sin-sick soul.”

What Might White Vermonters Do?

What might white Vermonters do to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

  • Become part of a social network led and facilitated by people of color that gets you out of your racial comfort zones and ethnic familiarity to experience the needed discomforts that come with evolving into a more compassionate human being.
  • Organizations such as FORE (Focus on Racial Equity) should be proactive in attracting people of color to its membership and leadership and increasing opportunities for social and educational gatherings of multiracial interaction.
  • Parents with children of color, be assertive in introducing them to social networks of color in your area that they can attend regularly to help them develop a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Students considering college, rid yourself of the bigoted notion that black colleges are inferior, and consider applying to a predominantly black college or university.
  • Encourage, mentor, groom and inspire people of color for leadership in local, state and national political offices, and pressure our state party leaders to make room for such prospects.
  • Explore the underside of Vermont history concerning racism and slavery that contributed to this state being one of the whitest states in the union. In this request, allow me to elaborate.

You will discover that though Vermont entered the nation as a “slave-free” state, there were exceptions to this rule that allowed for the enslavement of African Americans women up to age 18 and men up to twenty-one. Yet even these allowances were violated by prominent citizens of the state. Harvey Amani Whitfield, Professor of History at the University of Vermont, mentions in his book, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, that State Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacobs and Levi Allen, brother of the military leader Ethan Allen, were two of many Vermonters who enslaved African Americans long past the age prohibiting their bondage.

Furthermore, while most white Vermonters in the first half of the 19th century abhorred the institution of slavery, they also believed that African Americans could not prosper alongside white people and favored their emigration to Africa. Vermont historian, Elise Guyette, documents well in her book, Discovering Black Vermont,the popular sentiment in favor of African colonization represented during this time by leading figures of the state.

Add to this the fact that because Vermont never had a large enough industry or a critical mass of people of color to attract a huge migration of such individuals, the state has remained one of the whitest regions of the country. And while it is progressive in many ways, its predominantly white makeup has consistently contributed to incidents of racial insensitivity and hostility toward people of color.

  • As Vermont becomes one of the last bastions of a white majority amid a majority nation of color, the urgency increases for white Vermonters, along with Vermonters of color, to resist the tendency to maintain its culture of white privilege.

Ladies and gentlemen, sisters and brothers, it is not enough to crave a piece of the American pie when for centuries the recipe has proven poisonous to our health. It is time to change the recipe, to find new ingredients where all who hunger for peace, justice and security may be fully fed and amply nourished at the one table to which all are invited as honored guest, and no one is turned away.

I end as I began, with the prophetic warning of Bob Dylan:

The line it is drawn,
The curse it is cast.
The slow one now
Will later be fast,
As the present now
Will later be past.
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last,
For the times they are a-changin’

Thank you for listening.

The Rev. Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont. He has also done extensive work and ministry relating to human rights.

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