Vermont, Race and Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Reno, Nev. (AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Reno, Nev. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

People ask: "What has Bernie Sanders done for race relations?" As a minority living in Vermont, I say, just look at Vermont.

For a long time now, the narrative in the presidential race has been that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is not in tune with issues of race because he is from the largely white state of Vermont. That Bernie Sanders has not talked about race during his political career. That may be true, but what Bernie Sanders did is far more valuable than just talking about race relations. He took a largely white small rural state and made it welcoming to minorities. Vermont does have a minority population. And the truth is that Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy and other politicians in Vermont created an atmosphere of tolerance and openness that welcomes minorities. Vermont should be held as a model for other states.

Unfortunately, I have had a great deal of first-hand experience with racism. Before moving to Vermont, living in more diverse states, I have been called a terrorist, a radical, accused of infiltrating the American government for al Qaeda, and was one of the Muslim American's spied on by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Edward Snowden discovered that the NSA was reading my emails and monitoring my phone calls. This is all despite me having served my country as an officer in the United States Navy, holding one of the highest security clearances and never having been presented shred of evidence that I harbored any terrorist tendencies. But because I am Muslim and proud of it, I must be a terrorist.

By the prevailing wisdom in the presidential race, a Muslim American spied on by the NSA should never feel welcomed in an overwhelmingly white state of Vermont. There is hardly a large Muslim population in Vermont. However, the truth is that Vermont has been nothing but accepting and welcoming to my family and me. How and why is that?

What most people do not know is that Vermont has a significant refugee population. In cities of Burlington and Winooski, there are over 60 languages spoken. In the old largely Catholic mill town of Winooski, Vermont, the city has had to adapt to an influx of refugees from Africa, Bhutan and Nepal.

In Winooski schools, with a student enrollment of just 826 students, 38 percent require English as a second language services. Yet, the white population of this city is very welcoming to its refugee population. It starts with the language used by our residents. People in Winooski and Burlington do not refer to the refugees as "refugees" but rather as "New Americans." At every point, there is a concerted effort made to be inclusive and openhearted.

This welcome with open arms has opened the doors to a future for these New Americans, giving them opportunities to start a business, a family, and a life here in the United States. Of the thousands of refugees who have moved to Vermont, most of them have not left the state.

Again, I ask why is overwhelmingly white Vermont with no history of diversity so welcoming to minorities from other parts of the world? How is it that despite the challenges faced by communities that have a significant minority immigrant population mixing with a large white population, Vermont has been able to absorb its minority population?

Just look at Minnesota and the challenges it faces. The answer is simple: It is due first and foremost to culture and values of Vermonters themselves, but Vermont's political leaders also deserve credit for this attitude on integration and openness.

Bernie Sanders has been in leadership of Vermont since 1981. Since then, Bernie Sanders along with Sen. Patrick Leahy has fostered an attitude of openness and inclusiveness. Bernie took office by advocating against discrimination, maybe not racial discrimination but discrimination nonetheless.

Bernie Sanders led the way in arguing for fairness, equality and advocating for the poor. It was this populist message that cleared the way for Vermont to absorb and integrate this refugee and minority population. When mayor, Bernie regularly had to take his populist message to the people to get his agenda implemented. Bernie got people used to the idea that government should help people different than them, that government does have a role to play in ending discrimination.

Now, I am not saying that Vermont does not have significant work to do in reaching racial equality. Many challenges remain. But when instances of racism arise, we want our leaders to take it seriously and act swiftly. That is exactly what happened.

Recently, someone from out of state was delivering a KKK flyer to the homes of African American women. Almost immediately people and political leaders such as the mayor of Burlington and state's attorney attended rallies in protest. The person was caught and now faces charges for disorderly conduct with an enhanced hate crime sentencing. Vermonters sent a strong message that this type of behavior would not be tolerated in Vermont.

Bernie Sanders need not run away from the fact that he is from less diverse state of Vermont, but rather he should use Vermont as an example for other states to integrate their minority populations. The entire goal of any civil rights movement be it black, Muslim or immigrant, is to be seen not as a Black American, Muslim American, or immigrant -- but rather just as an American.

In a state where a person of color sticks out, the person of color is more readily accepted and celebrated than in many other states. Vermont is not perfect yet, but it certainly has had to deal with racial issues and it has dealt with it better than most states. It is hard to argue that one of its leaders, Bernie Sanders, had nothing to do with the welcoming attitude of Vermont towards minority.

So Bernie Sanders may not have talked about racial issues much yet, but he helped create a society that welcomes minorities and treats them like full Americans. Not a bad record.