Racism in CT: Two views on the road to reform

WILTON — While many people may believe the United States is having a “moment” since the death of George Floyd, state Attorney General William Tong said this. “The nation is having a much overdue conversation, but I think there’s a temptation right now to call this a moment and an opportunity, and it is a moment and opportunity, but it’s not the moment and the opportunity because we’ve had these before: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Emmet Till.”

Tong joined Stephanie Thomas, the Democratic candidate running for the 143rd district seat in the state House of Representatives, in a video discussion Thursday evening on “Racial Justice in Connecticut,” organized by the College Democrats of Connecticut. The event drew students from Trinity, Yale, UConn and other schools.

Tong, who is the first Asian-Pacific-American constitutional officer in the state’s history and the first elected Chinese-American attorney general in the U.S., went on to say that people were surprised to see “immigrants in cages” at the Mexican border.

“I can believe it,” he said with emotion, “because we did it to Japanese-Americans 75 ago, put 125,000 American citizens and their families in camps on American soil.”

It’s not a singular moment because “in terms of institutional racism and bias, police misconduct, police brutality, people getting beaten, abused, scapegoated, mistreated, discriminated against, shot and killed and murdered at the hands of law enforcement professionals and at the hands of a government entity is not something new,” he said, adding it is “a difficult commentary that to a lot of people it seems something new.”

People looking for a quick answer will be disappointed, he said, because any steps taken will be incremental ones against the racism and hate that has existed for “a very long time.”

As a Black woman, Stephanie Thomas spoke from her personal experiences.

“Talking about this is very personal to my everyday life,” she said. She was a fearful 9-year-old when the police wrongly arrested her father for the rape of a white woman, an angry 12-year-old when she and her white friends would go to the same store after school day after day but only she and her brother were followed, and a disappointed 16-year-old to learn the parents of friends she played with as a child forbade interracial dating. (Her father, who was jailed for two months because he could not make bail, was cleared of charges when the victim told police in court they had the wrong man.)

“Right now … I have not heard very much in the very well-meaning conversations taking place that match up with what I call soul-wrenching danger, fear, anger, despair that I wake up in the morning with and that I go to bed at night with,” she said.

“The hopelessness that caused me when I first saw the headline about George Floyd’s murder, it keeps scrolling — I didn’t read the article let alone watch the video — because I’ve learned long ago to protect myself from the traumas of the Amadou Diallos, the Eric Garners, the Sandra Blands and all the others, the traumas of all the stories you never hear.”

“Racism is the culprit behind just about every system failure that we have,” she said.

Guidelines for change

Neither Thomas nor Tong had a definitive answer for overcoming racist attitudes here and throughout the country, but both believed there are steps that can be taken.

Thomas, who is running to represent parts of Wilton, Weston and Norwalk, said part of the answer lies with more people understanding the problem before it can be solved.

She floated the idea of an equity committee that examines the intersection of race with housing, education, human resources, business development, income inequality and environmental justice among other issues. Comparing it to the state’s reopening committee, the purpose would be to establish guidelines and best practices for cities and towns that want to do better until the legislature catches up.

“Businesses, communities and municipalities have the capacity to move much faster than the legislature,” she said.

Reminding those watching that the legislature won’t convene again in regular session until 2021, when momentum could very well be lost, she believes people who want to effect change could move more quickly if they had tools available to them.

She also called for more diverse leadership in Hartford committed to change and urgency.

“What we really need most of all are people willing to be part of the process by voting, speaking at public hearings, submitting testimony, and holding their legislators accountable.”

One bill — the Clean Slate Bill — before the legislature this year would have expunged a person’s criminal record if they remained crime free for five years after their release.

“That would do tremendous things for people of color here in Connecticut,” she said.

Tong, who before being elected attorney general represented Darien and North Stamford in the state House, in 2015 helped write and pass a bill that “changed the way we deal with excessive use of force in law enforcement,” he said. Body cameras for police were also introduced.

“That felt like a moment because that was after Ferguson,” he said, referring to the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown. “In that moment we all felt ‘this is the time we’re going to get it right.’ And I think we all need to have perspective it’s going to take a long time to get this right.”

He agreed “the system” has flaws “but we’re more broken than the system is and I think people need to understand the system is a process and it relies on people of good faith doing the right thing. Democracy … is one big honor system,” he said. “And if people don’t do the right thing and they don’t honor the rules, and they don’t fulfill their obligations and discharge their duties, we’re screwed.

“The system is comprised entirely of people.”