Bias-Free Policing in Vermont

Here is a draft opinion piece that I am writing regarding racial profiling in Vermont.

On December 30, 2009, my children, husband and I were three months in to a 10-month cultural exchange in Guangzhou, China. The shock of relocation and cross-cultural encounters had made it a bumpy autumn. Only now, in December, had we begun to develop our “China legs.” The routine of everyday life was starting to feel comfortable and ordinary.

That morning I took my youngest daughter to her pre-school art class. We rode our Guangzhou-made bicycle with the imported child seat on the back to preschool. It was a lovely ride along the car-free path on the Pearl River. We passed hawkers selling goods and services, exercise groups variously working on sword play, fan-dancing, ballroom dance, and tai chi. It was an exotic scene, one that I witnessed every day. I felt a sense of comfort and competence, growing wonder at my own ability to “make it” in China.

My morning high came to an abrupt end. My daughter and I were stopped by the police as we were coming out of the preschool. I was unlocking the bicycle when two police officers walked up and asked to see our passports, record our visa information, and confirm that we had registered as resident foreigners with the local authorities. The experience was disturbing. I felt unwelcome and singled out. We were living in Guangzhou, shopping at the market, sending our children to the local schools, and riding our bicycles all over town, but to those law enforcement officials and the billions of Chinese people who did not know me, I was just another outsider easily identifiable by her whiteness. Since Chinese law does not provide for the extension of citizenship to non-Chinese, no matter how long I stayed in China or how much it felt like home I would always be an outsider, subject to random immigration checks highlighting my legal exclusion and racial distinctiveness.

In reflecting on this experience and others in which I was racially-marked as an outsider in China, I would often feel a sense of pride that, in the United States, social membership is not so closely tied to racial identity. As a sociologist of immigration and race, I was well acquainted with the racist history of the United States. For example, only white immigrants were eligible for U.S. citizenship from the founding of the country until 1952. I also recognized that American racial exclusion has both symbolic aspects of as well as pragmatic ones. For example, having a political voice is a pragmatic benefit of citizenship, while feeling accepted is a symbolic benefit of social inclusion. While the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes to overcoming entrenched and active social exclusion, I thought, at least the law no longer blatantly props up white superiority the way Chinese-ness is the explicit foundation of Chinese citizenship.

Over the last 2 years I have watched with dismay as the symbolic exclusion of non-white Americans has been made increasingly pragmatic. In 2010, Arizona’s governor signed a law that made it a crime for immigrants to be without their documents and required that law enforcement inquire into immigration status when they suspect that someone is undocumented. An Alabama Law currently before the courts also mandates that public safety officers inquire into immigration status and further demands that public schools ascertain the immigration status of their students. A host of states, municipalities and public debates have challenged the belonging and “fitness” of immigrant, non-Christian and non-white Americans.

Observing with disappointment the discriminatory legislation and public action elsewhere, I have taken comfort in my status as a Vermont resident. I have been the proud devotee of this progressive and inclusive State that, as in the cases of gay marriage and universal healthcare, often leads the nation in the pursuit of a more equitable and just society. So, imagine my concern when, on September 13, a Vermont state trooper profiled two passengers in a car that was pulled over for speeding. He suspected that they were not Americans. He called in to the station to inquire if it was permissible to ask what country the passengers were from. Despite the fact that the immigration status of the two brown passengers in the speeding vehicle was not germane to the traffic stop, he was given permission. It turns out that, while Vermont law may not require inquiries into immigration status the way that the Arizona and Alabama laws do, there is nothing in Vermont law that protects Vermont residents from being asked on the basis of appearance and in instances when it should not matter if they really belong here. I could never become a citizen of China, a reality that legitimated the management of my presence as an outsider. A non-white Vermonter, on the other hand, might have citizenship and still be subject to capricious questioning prompted by assumptions based on stereotypes.

In 2010, Vermont was home to 29,449 non-whites. This number imperfectly accounts for about 9208 Hispanic residents, and 867 non-citizen legal immigrants. I suspect that many of these temporary residents, Americans and future Americans are known and loved by their neighbors as they, like many of us, seek to engage their community and enjoy life in Vermont. The acceptance non-white Vermonters may experience in personal relationships and communities does not provide protection from questioning when, in the mind of someone with the authority to ask, they don’t look like they belong.

Vermont can do better. Individuals of all shapes and shades reside in and love the Green Mountain State and deserve protection from racial profiling and symbolic exclusion. In November 2010, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell recommended that police departments around the state adopt bias free guidelines. He wrote: Law enforcement officers will not consider race, ethnicity, or other Personal Criteria in establishing either reasonable suspicion or probable cause….Personal Criteria may include, but is not limited to, race, ethnicity, immigration status, national origin, color, gender, sexual orientation, gender Identity, mental illness, religion, disability, and socioeconomic level. Vermonters have organized locally to encourage individual law enforcement agencies to implement bias-free policies. These local efforts are important but they are not enough. Governor Shumlin and Vermont legislators must pass legislation that protects Vermonters from unnecessary inquiries into their personal lives. Such lines of questioning challenge the belonging of the many non-white individuals who call Vermont home.

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One Response to Bias-Free Policing in Vermont

  1. Pingback: Sociological Crisis | Vermont 2 China

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