White Vermont Schools Display Black Lives Matter Flags
In what appears to be a practice unique to Vermont, yet more of the Green Mountain State's schools have elected to officially fly the Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag. Since Montpelier High School, in the state's capital, became the first public school in the nation to display this flag (for the month of February 2018), a number of other Vermont schools have followed suit. Most recently, the Town of Rutland's public schools board "voted unanimously to fly the flag for 400 consecutive days starting April 12 — the 158th anniversary of the start of the Civil War."
Vermont is an odd venue for such protests. The first state to abolish slavery (in 1777), Vermont had numerous residents serve and die in the Civil War. High-profile protests at Vermont's Middlebury College in 2017 are similarly ironic: the first black college graduate in United States history, Alexander Twilight, was in Middlebury's class of 1823 and also went on to become the first (and only pre–Civil War) black state legislator, in 1836, in Vermont.
Alexander Twilight attended grammar school in Randolph, Vermont, where the Black Lives Matter flag was flown recently because students asserted that "people of color" "were not represented in our school." One student commented, "Even though raising the flag is not intended as a threat to white people, it can sometimes be interpreted as such."
It is inappropriate for educators to officially embrace vague, anarchic "movements" justified as "teaching tools." Black Lives Matter is a sufficiently controversial organization that Montpelier High School's Principal Mike McRaith felt compelled at the initial flag-raising to issue the disclaimer that "we reject any purported violence associated with Black Lives Matter and embrace the message of equity for all." Given the open (not purported) violence often associated with BLM at protests and riots, that "equitable message" is often clouded. Pol Pot sincerely wished to implement a purist "higher" stage of communism that embraced egalitarianism and selflessness, and his Khmer Rouge was (purportedly) willing to exterminate intellectuals and dissidents in large numbers to do so. It is nonsensical to embrace an organization or ideology and then seek to disassociate its dubious means from its benign ends — yet this is precisely what these school administrations have done.
What is the difference between the BLM flag and the Confederate flag, of which some would say, "Even though raising the flag is not intended as a threat to black people, it can sometimes be interpreted as such"? Employing Principal McRaith's rationale, since one view of the Confederate flag represents liberty and (rebellious) freedom, these positive meanings can be "embraced," while any "purported associated violence" can be "rejected." Vermont's schools do not display Confederate flags. Or MAGA flags.
In the 1960's civil rights movement, division existed between black leaders who sought to use peaceful protest to effect change (most notably pastor Martin Luther King, Jr.) and those, like the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, who advocated for violence to achieve equality for blacks.
BLM states that the United States is guilty of a national systemic racism that kills black people: this is simply not true of Vermont. But BLM's Burlington chapter website declares on its home page: "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change..." (Audre Lorde).
This echoes Malcolm X's famous speech on January 23, 1963, in which he differentiated between "house negroes" who lived in the master's house, and who cared that the master recover when ill, and "field negroes": "But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses — the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. [Laughter] If his house caught fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze."
This is why some people (black and white) perceive the BLM flag as a threat to civil order and inappropriate for support via public funds or public institutions. BLM is oft compared to the Occupy Wall Street "movement," an anarchic group of sign-wavers with no shared leadership or message. BLM is unclear in its methodology and has no centralized leadership; its name as slogan is visible in disruptive and sometimes violent protests — including numerous instances of disrespect toward police. As reported in the New Yorker, "Black Lives Matter has been described as 'not your grandfather's civil-rights movement,' to distinguish its tactics and its philosophy from those of nineteen-sixties-style activism."
What exactly does BLM "mean" on its website that "[w]e are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege"? Or "[w]e are committed to dismantling the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work 'double shifts' that require them to mother in private even as they participate in justice work"? Are Vermont's schools shepherding children to "dismantle" these patriarchal, cisgender oppressions of the master's house?
I support the freedom of citizens to privately display any flag they wish — even the Swastika, as the United States Supreme Court guaranteed in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977). But I oppose controversial ideological flags being flown at state-funded public schools, because it appears that the institution is endorsing an ideology or its methodology.
Malcolm X called Martin Luther King a 20th-century Uncle Tom (the equivalent of a House Negro), criticizing King's nonviolent approach and calling for liberty and equality "by any means necessary." BLM's leaders similarly criticize the peaceful avenue, as recounted in the New Yorker piece above. King in turn opposed what he considered Malcolm's "dangerous radicalism," saying of Malcolm: "Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief" (MLK History).
Perhaps today's America no longer wishes to "discriminate" between the diametrically opposed methodologies of these two intelligent, passionate men, but I assert that the two paths toward a goal of equality remain. One is violent, the other peaceful. It appears by language and action that BLM favors the Malcolm X route.
It is incumbent upon our Vermont educators to explain their position. Are these schools stating that blacks are systematically oppressed by the State of Vermont? Are they opposing cisgender dominance, patriarchal privilege, and double shifts for mothers in justice work? Are they endorsing the radicalism of Malcolm X? It's kind of important.
These schools delegated this race conversation to black students, rather than lead it for all. The stated goal has been "to educate white people about racism." Yet per Audre Lorde, "expecting a marginalized group to educate the oppressors is the continuation of racist, patriarchal thought." By that measure, the schools that displayed the BLM flag assisted their black students to become Uncle Toms.
Ebony Nyoni, BLM's Vermont leader, appeared in a high-profile article (photographed in shackles!) in which "micro-aggressions" were equated with lynchings and the "black struggle" in Vermont is called a "life and death matter." Nyoni later encountered scandal when her use of funds was questioned during a contentious political race. I am unaware of a state BLM chapter that has been more controversial than that of Vermont — the only state where public schools fly BLM's flag.
Stranger still is a Vermont report that declares of Vermont that "[w]e live in a White Supremacy culture." "White privilege" is therein defined as "an invisible package of unearned assets which [a white person] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [the person] is meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."
Mostly, Vermonters have enjoyed white privilege over only each (white) other and have a virtually unbroken (white, except for indigenous people) history of agrarian poverty that lacked "invisible packages of unearned assets" (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wasn't here then) or "invisible weightless knapsacks." They ate coyote and groundhog. A great many Vermonters could not read maps (or anything else) and never owned a passport or visa. Heat, shelter, clothes, and food were challenge enough, the last often consumed sans teeth.
Yet a handful of recent carpetbagger émigrés have discovered that "People of Color" enjoy special status in white-guilt Vermont, including direct access to a legislature that will rubber-stamp (and fund!) anything proffered, like white-bread deer in the race-card headlights.
This January, our legislature unanimously passed a bill creating a "group tasked with recommending changes to the state's academic standards to ... recognize fully the history, contributions, and perspectives of ethnic and social groups." "Social groups" includes "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, or nonbinary."
Thus, Vermont awaits a new school curriculum for pre-K through 12 that will incorporate the previously unrecognized contributions of queer, questioning, and transgender colonial pioneers, Civil War heroes, and 19th-century orators. This unchallenged legislation is as vague as BLM's platform, cloaked in the magic race card.
Of course, there are prejudices here — shockingly, Rutland City school board member Michael Blow told students at a March 12 meeting that he was a "nigger-lover." But radical, sweeping legislative change is not justified by the paltry minority of ignorant people. Most Vermonters are quite the opposite — one judge dismissed a drunk driving charge against a black driver solely because the accused, as a black man, had "exercised restraint" when arrested.
While Vermont's schools fly BLM flags, its legislature weighs a bill that would create a reparations committee that will 1) determine "how the State of Vermont will offer a formal apology on behalf of the people of Vermont for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants" (5502 [b][B]) and 2) "what form of compensation should be awarded, through what instrumentalities, and who should be eligible for such compensation" (5502 [b][F]).
BLM is specifically endorsed for membership on the committee.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield, Vermont.