Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?

Mar 3, 2017

This month on Brave Little State, the history of Vermont’s whiteness — both racial and cultural — and stories from people of color about what it’s like to live here.

The question that kicked off our inquiry came from Eva Gumprecht, of Adamant. Eva grew up in New York City. Her neighborhood was a mix of Jewish refugees and Hispanic people — growing up, she loved hearing different languages, but she hated the lack of nature and the over-stimulation.

“I knew from the beginning of my life that I hated living in cities. I always felt like somehow I'd just been born in the wrong place,” she says.

After college, Eva moved out to western Massachusetts, then ended up in Boston, and became a clinical social worker.

“And then I just couldn't take it anymore,” she says. “So about 11 years ago, I moved to Vermont.”

Shortly after Eva settled in Adamant, she had a strange experience.

“I remember one day we were having a satellite dish installed, and two young men showed up to install it, and they were black. And I’d probably been here for about six months then, and I suddenly realized I really hadn't seen anyone black in those six months. And there was just this sense of something missing, something artificial about that.”

It may not be a stretch to say that depending on where in Vermont you live, it’s possible that you also haven’t seen a person of color in a couple months. As of the 2010 Census, this state was 95.3 percent white, one of the whitest states in the country.

And what Eva Gumprecht wanted to know was: Why?

"Why is Vermont so overwhelmingly white? And how does that affect all of us?" — Eva Gumprecht, Adamant

We tried to come at Eva’s question from two directions: by trying to understand some of the historical, economic and social forces that have shaped Vermont’s “whiteness” over the years, and by interviewing people of color living in Vermont about what it’s like to be a resident of this state. 

(If you're looking for the extended cuts from those interviews, scroll down to find the Soundcloud audio files.)

But before all that, two quick disclaimers: First, one of the most visible sources of diversity in Vermont is our state’s refugee population, which is mostly in and around Burlington. But given that refugees don’t exactly come to Vermont by choice, we decided to focus on other demographics. Second, it should be noted that any and all white Vermonters were preceded by the original Vermonters, before Vermont was Vermont: Native Americans. We actually devoted an entire episode to Vermont’s Abenaki tribes a few months back, so give it a listen if you missed it.

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Push & pull

“In terms of immediacy, there isn't an established community of color here in Vermont. And there is a historic reason for that,” says C. Winter Han, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College and the author of the book Geisha of a Different Kind: Race and Sexuality in Gaysian America. “Because clearly there were many places that at one time in history were not very diverse, like Chicago or New York or Philadelphia — there really was a time when those cities were almost uniformly white. And yet over time, for different reasons, for different groups, they became much more diverse.”

Professor Han says these transformations weren’t arbitrary.

“There is this pattern of migration that most places where people go, they go because there's already an established connection between the place that that is sending migrants and the place that is receiving them.

This theory of immigration is often referred to as “push and pull.” And if you take the long view of Vermont’s history, when it comes to a particular demographic — African-Americans — there was no "pull" to Vermont. That's according to Sam McReynolds, a professor of sociology and the chair of the Department of Society, Culture and Language at the University of New England, 

“There were no jobs, there was no African-American history, heritage, culture to attract African-Americans to come to the state to settle,” he says.

It’s a point of pride for Vermonters that we were the first state to abolish slavery, in 1777. And that’s a good thing. But McReynolds says that since Vermont didn’t have any big cotton plantations, for example, there was never a big, baseline population of African-Americans in the state.

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“My view is that not just for Vermont, for northern New England — for New Hampshire and Maine as well — that the situation was structured in a way that without large-scale farming, without large-scale industry, without having had a slave population to deal with large-scale farming, there simply wasn't a foundation or a base for drawing people in,” McReynolds says.

After the Civil War, former slaves couldn’t afford to travel all the way to Vermont to buy land. Of course there were exceptions to this rule, like Alec and Sally Turner, who settled in Grafton in 1873.

The Vermont Folklife Center has an incredible stash of interviews that one of Alec and Sally's children, Daisy Turner, recorded with folklorist Jane Beck in 1983. Daisy was born in 1883, and grew up on the 100-acre farm that her father named Journey’s End.

“We didn’t just come from nothing and nowhere. We’ve got a background. And the background you trace back down to the roots,” Daisy said in the Peabody-award winning series, Journey's End: The Memories and Traditions of Daisy Turner and her Family.

Brave Little State is VPR's people-powered journalism podcast. Learn about the show.

But for the most part, when African Americans came north, they went to work in cities, in industrial jobs. And even when Vermont’s industries got going, with mills and quarries, black folks were not in the labor pool.

“What filled the mills, when they opened, the low-wage labor came from the Irish and the French Canadians,” McReynolds says. “It was much easier for French Canadians to come across the border from Canada than for an African-American to make his way or her way to Vermont.”  

Italians were also in the mix — and Poles and Swedes — they came to Proctor and Barre to work in the marble and granite industries. McReynolds says the presence of immigrants in Vermont, working these kinds of jobs, was one of the reasons that so few black people came here during the Great Migration. This was when 6 million African-Americans moved up out of the South starting around World War I.

“So this migration is just phenomenal in number and scale and diversity and range of places,” McReynolds says. “And … it went everywhere but Vermont.”

Local business, progressive politics 

What about today? In a lot of ways, it’s still about the economy. C. Winter Han, from Middlebury, says other historically white states are now diversifying because they’re developing new industries that attract new kinds of people. He uses Iowa as an example.

“What we're seeing in Iowa is that we're seeing a lot of the meat-packing industry that used to be in the Chicago area and other sort of metropolitan areas,” he says. “And those types of industries tend to draw, not only do they draw Latino laborers, but they also actively recruit Latino labor.”

But in Vermont?

“Even though Vermont is a very rural state and we have farms here, we don't have that type of large factory farms — it would not be as cost effective for Vermont farms to recruit Latino labor," Han says.

Some Vermont farms do have workers from Latin America, mostly Mexico — but since a lot of those workers are undocumented, they’re limited in how much they can participate in their communities. And in any case, Han says that the kind of ideal of Vermont farming is not factory-size.

“If Vermont pushes sort of this idea of small-scale artisan farming, and that sort of reflects Vermont values, right, then that limits the type of people who can come here and work in those types of places,” he says.

The same goes for other industries. When Vermont focuses on local, small businesses, “those small employers and small shops tend to employ one or two people, as opposed to sort of large-scale employers that may have an easier time recruiting a more diverse workforce.”

Professor Han acknowledges that this is a complicated way of thinking about diversity: “I'm sure a lot of people would say, ‘Well, it isn't really all that great if we're having people recruiting a diverse workforce only because they can be exploited.’ Right? That's not really a good thing either.”

And Han says this is where Vermont’s economy and our progressive politics start to create a kind of awkward dynamic.

“It's a very, I guess, emotional issue for a lot of people, in the sense that we're in this situation because in a lot of ways because we are progressive — we have these very progressive values about economic fairness and about social justice issues. And unfortunately, those aren't the things that move big populations of people," he says.

So Vermont has this homogeneous workforce, and that means homogenous communities. And for people like Wayne Miller, that means Vermont can feel like dangerous territory.

So, if we have the beginnings of an answer to Eva’s question, it’s that a) there have been some large-scale economic forces that have made it difficult for Vermont to attract people of color in any big way, and b) it’s really hard to live in Vermont and be not white.

But.

“But at the same time, though, these were very sort of simple answers, because if we sort of say, ‘Well there are no people of color in Vermont because there is nothing here for them,’ we have to wonder, well, how come there's white people here?" C. Winter Han asks. "I mean, because the same forces that would have driven people to migrate to a certain place should have also motivated other people to do so as well.”

And this is an excellent question, because it takes us from the basics and brings us to the next level of contemplating Vermont’s whiteness. How it defines itself and perpetuates itself.

‘Imaginative geographies of whiteness’

In 2006, Robert Vanderbeck wrote a totally fascinating paper called “Vermont and the Imaginative Geographies of American Whiteness.” Vanderbeck works in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, in England, but for this research he spent time at the University of Vermont.

“In terms of addressing this question about Vermont whiteness, one of the things to keep in mind is that this idea of whiteness is very much kind of a social and cultural construction,” Vanderbeck says.

Yankee whiteness

In his paper, Vanderbeck talks about a kind of perceived whiteness in Vermont, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries: Yankee whiteness. It’s not just a skin color, but a set of connotations.

“Ideas of a kind of people who are taciturn … who are thrifty people, who are hardworking people, who have this particular attachment to ideas of liberty and democracy and these kinds of things,” Vanderbeck says.

Vanderbeck argues that compared to the Southern white, associated with Jim Crow laws and overt racism, the Yankee was considered pretty tame. But in his research he found a different story.

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“You know, people of Irish descent, people of Italian descent, of Greek descent, would not have necessarily been kind of embraced within this category of whiteness,” he says.

Remember that these were the immigrants who worked in Vermont’s mills and quarries. In 1937, an academic named Elin Anderson did some ethnographic research in Burlington for a book called We Americans: A study of cleavage in an American city.

“She had this great passage from her book where she writes about kind of Yankee perceptions of the city of Burlington,” Vanderbeck says.

This is what she wrote:

“Walking down the streets of Burlington, the visitor sees nothing in the appearance of the citizens to … give any impression of cleavages in the community, of barriers separating group from group. On a Saturday night, for example, with doors open until nine or half-past, the citizens of Burlington, the farmers from the country, and visitors from near-by towns, all mingle together … In this moment of common activity they all bear the stamp of Americans …  But to a Yankee farmer they are not all alike. To him Burlington has a lot of foreigners. As he walks along the main street, he looks in vain for a few faces which remind him of the features of Calvin Coolidge.”

In a way, this dynamic still exists in Vermont.

“I have to say for me, being Jewish and coming here was difficult and it wasn't something I expected,” says Eva Gumprecht, this month’s question-asker, of her experience when she moved to Vermont in 2005.

“The first year, I would be talking with people and I would find they weren't looking at my face. And I couldn't figure out for a long time where they were looking. They were looking at my hands. Because I talk with my hands. People — Yankees — don't do that,” she says. “And I was used to a certain speed of conversation and a certain passion of conversation which for most of Vermont, I think, is considered over-the-top. And so I would find myself sort of dialing myself back and really trying to fit in.”

C. Winter Han, of Middlebury College, shares this anecdote:

“I met somebody, and ... he said, ‘Either you're a professor or a doctor.’ And I said ... 'How do you know?’ And he sort of said, ‘Well, you’re an Asian person in Middlebury. So clearly you're a doctor or a professor. That's the only Asian people who come here.’”

And then there are stories like Olivia Lapierre’s.

The narrow definition of “Vermonter” and “Yankee” lives on. And according to Vanderbeck, that’s because it was continually reinforced and perpetuated over the years. Like, with recruitment.

Recruiting white farmers

Around the turn of the 20th century, when there was a bunch of out-migration, with people leaving their farms, “there was lots of discussion about who [Vermont] could recruit to work on the farms,” Vanderbeck says.

And the preferred farmer, according to Vanderbeck, was of Teutonic origins: German, or Scandinavian.

“When you were looking for people to take over abandoned farms, you weren’t thinking about, you know, trying to recruit the former African-American sharecropper in the U.S. South, but you wanted ... a Swede or Norwegian from Minnesota, for example,” Vanderbeck says.

He cites former U.S. Census superintendent Francis Walker, who wrote this in 1882:

“(T)he Germans, the Scandinavians, and though in a lesser degree, the Irish and French Canadians, who have made their homes where they are surrounded by the native agriculturalists, have become in a short time almost as good as Yankees … as if they had been born upon the hills of Vermont.”

In other words, there was a preference for attracting and assimilating white farmers over black farmers.

Enticing second home-owners

Another demographic that the state tried to attract was the second home-owner — but a particular kind of second home-owner. In the 1930s, Vermont’s beloved writer and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher was hired by the Vermont Bureau of Publicity to write an official invitation to potential buyers.

“And the invitation was explicitly directed at quote, ‘Those who teach in schools, colleges, and universities, those who are doctors, lawyers, musicians, writers, artists. In a word, those who can earn their living by a professionally-trained use of their brains,’” Vanderbeck says.

“And while it does not explicitly kind of invoke a notion of whiteness, it was very clearly [about] a particular type of person that the state was systematically trying to recruit.”

Marketing to tourists

And finally, Vanderbeck says the state sent an almost subliminal message when it marketed itself to tourists.

“When I was based at UVM, I spent a lot of time going through … Vermont Life magazine,” he says. And he noticed this visual pattern.

White faces, and white snow ... white steeples on churches and the so-called white New England village are all kind of packaged together in a way that's made to kind of look and feel kind of natural in a particular way,” he says, “even that was clearly not kind of anything natural, it was very much a cultural construction.”

So beyond economic forces and immigration streams, what we’ve had in this state is this long-term messaging about what Vermont looks like, and who Vermonters are.

And it’s really important to remember that this goes for white people, too.

Vermont's multiculturalism

“I think fundamentally what we're missing is the multiculturalism that even exists within that word white,” says Jude Smith Rachele, the CEO of a consultancy called Abundant Sun, which does diversity and inclusion training for businesses and nonprofits all over the world (including one recently at VPR).

Smith Rachele wants people to be very wary of making assumptions about who white Vermonters are.

“I mean, I did one of our unconscious bias workshops just four days ago for one of our clients, and there was this one young man who, you know ... you look at him and he looks just like your typical white Vermonter," Smith Rachele says. "Underneath the surface, he's a Bosnian refugee. [He] didn't have much to say when everybody else was talking about their childhood experiences growing up in Vermont, until he worked with his smaller group of colleagues and he said, 'You know, from from [ages] 0 to 12 ... I grew up during a war ... I spent 3 to 5 living in a basement with no windows.' But you know, he's white. But he's also Muslim. So that's why I cannot and I will not simplify the answer to the question of why is Vermont so white.”

That being said, there’s misjudging white people, and then there’s flat-out racism. So we’re closing out this month’s inquiry with a woman who’s experienced quite a bit of the latter. Her name is Angela Grenier.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Journalism Fund.

Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode was used under a Creative Commons license: