MONTPELIER — A bill calling for the formation of a task force to discuss a state apology and possible reparations for slavery is currently stuck in the House Committee on Government Operations for a second year.
The committee must release the bill, H478, to the house floor by March 4 or it will once again stall for the year. The bill was first introduced last year by Rep. Brian Cina and is sponsored by Reps. Kevin Christie, Selene Colburn, Harold Colston, Mari Cordes and Diana Gonzales.
Cina worked to create the bill with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, an organization that advocates for the implementation of state and local policy.
“Like many bills, it is still in committee, and I expect that’s where it will stay this year,” Cina said. “It’s a new idea. Sometimes it takes a few years.”
The task force proposed by the bill would work to gather opinions and ideas from Vermonters throughout the state on both a state apology and possible reparations. It would also work to bring the history of slavery in Vermont to light.
Cina said if the bill were to pass, he “would expect there would be some kind of apology for the connection to slavery, because there is a connection.”
Michelle Denault, of St. Albans, is a masters student at UVM and, along with her entire social policy class, has been campaigning, canvassing politicians and working on educational outreach in attempt to get the House Committee of Government Operations to release the bill to the floor.
“(The bill) is not saying we have to apologize. It’s not saying we have to make reparations. It’s just saying we need to talk about it,” Denault said.
“(The House Committee on Government Operations) is not hearing testimony on it. They’re not discussing it; it’s just stuck,” she added. “We need to have difficult conversations. We need to talk about the fact we have systemic racism built into our government system”
Denault’s class got involved in trying to get the bill to the floor after Mark Hughes of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance came to speak to her class about the bill and racial justice. Hughes is also a co-founder and Executive Director of Justice For All Vermont, an organization that seeks racial justice within Vermont’s criminal justice system through advocacy and education.
“When I first heard Mark talk, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I feel about Vermont’s making an apology or the concept of reparations. I don’t know how that would work,” Denault said.
But the more she learned, the more she thought things had to change.
“Even though we were one of the first states to supposedly get rid of slavery, we still have in our constitution that males under the age of 21, females under the age of 18 or anybody in prison can be enslaved,” she said.
And by population, Vermont has the highest rate of incarcerated non-white males in the country, with one of every 14 in prison.
“Under the current constitution, you’re still allowed to have indentured servants if they’re in debt to you,” Cina said. “The history of Vermont has been kind of whitewashed. People have this idea that we were the first state to eliminate (slavery), but we didn’t completely eliminate it. We reframed it.”
Cina said he’s had lots of positive feedback on the bill, but he has also heard from those who don’t agree with its intention.
Some believe the bill is divisive, that it’s causing problems, and that racism is not a problem in Vermont.
“They feel personally attacked,” Cina said.
In Denault’s opinion, some people in Vermont “say we’re not racist because we don’t have a lot of diversity, and we don’t think about it. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“I’m a Vermonter. I don’t want to be seen as this,” she said. “If we imagine ourselves to be open people, having these conversations shouldn’t scare us. We’re a democracy, which means we discuss things. We don’t hide them away.”