The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Racism exists in Maine. Racial disparities exist in Maine. We may not all experience them, and we may not all see them. But these all-too-common forces and inequalities don’t stop at the state border. They are here.
When we say this, it is not an attack on Maine or its history. This is not a slight against the overwhelming number of good people who live here. It is acknowledging that in one of the whitest states in America, race and racism have a significant impact on our fellow Mainers.
People should listen to their fellow community members, and learn about the discrimination they experience. They should look at the data, which shows Black Mainers are six times as likely to be incarcerated as White Mainers; that Mainers of color typically experience unemployment and poverty at twice the rate of White Mainers; that earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Mainers accounted for roughly 24 percent of cases in the state despite being less than 2 percent of the population.
These experiences and inequalities cannot be ignored.
For some members of the Maine Legislature, this all may be a new realization. That’s OK. But what they do now with this information is very important.
In 2019, state lawmakers created the Permanent Commision on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal populations as a vehicle for the state to become more aware of the inequalities here, and to be more deliberate about addressing them. LD 2, a bill that would create a process to assess racial impact as part of the legislative process, is a sensible extension of that effort. Maine needs an intentional focus on eliminating inequality.
LD 2, introduced by House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, would allow legislative committees to request data, analysis or other information from state departments or agencies in order to put together a racial impact statement on individual pieces of legislation. It would also require the Legislative Council to study the best way to implement the use of racial impact statements, and then establish a pilot project for the next legislative session to test this approach in a limited way. Based on that experience, the Legislative Council would then need to make a recommendation about how the Legislature should use racial impact statements moving forward. This is a cautious approach to necessary work.
“In every social, educational and economic system on which we have data, racial disparities exist here in Maine, just as they do across our country,” Talbot Ross, a Democrat from Portland, testified before the Committee on State and Local Government on Feb. 3. She is the first Black woman to serve in Maine legislative leadership. “It can be tempting to perceive these persistent inequities as a distant national problem, but the numbers show that Maine is not immune to this problem.”
As we see it, there are two broad avenues that some lawmakers might take to oppose this legislation. The first could be from the perspective that racial impact statements are not necessary — that there’s no problem here that needs fixing. We think it’s quite clear that is not the case.
Another potential reason for opposing this legislation might be based on a notion that it could be too cumbersome and could slow down the legislative process, and could be unworkable for state agencies. If that were to be the case, it would speak to how widespread racial inequality is, across Maine and throughout Maine public policy. That scenario would only further prove the need for this intentional look at legislating with racial impact in mind.
In both instances, we end up back where we started: the use of racial impact statements makes sense for the Maine Legislature and for Maine people.
Seven other states have already incorporated some form of racial impact statements into their legislative process. Maine should join them. These other states have often focused this process on criminal justice bills, but given the demonstrated ways that racial inequality exists across society, a wider scope is merited.
“Racial injustice does not just harm Black, Indigenous and people of color. It harms all of us,” Talbot Ross said in her testimony. “As long as there are those among us who are hampered by it, our communities cannot reach our shared potential economically, culturally or intellectually.”
Is passing LD 2 the right thing to do? We certainly think so. We also think it is the smart thing to do.