Maine must do more to understand, and address, the root causes of racial inequality

Publicly available data in Maine paints a picture of economic, health, education, and criminal justice systems that work better for white Mainers than for Mainers of color.

Those are the findings of a new fact sheet published today by MECEP, which describes what we know about racial inequality in our state. However, more research is needed to fully understand the barriers to prosperity faced by people of color in our state, and how best to reduce or eliminate those barriers so that all Mainers can prosper and fulfil their potential.

Maine’s economy, like that of the United States, has been structured over generations to benefit white people more than people of color. White Mainers experience higher wages, lower rates of incarceration, and greater access to health care than other racial groups. These privileges mirror, and sometimes exceed, the national average.

These systemic problems hurt all of us. When Mainers of color don’t have the same opportunities to thrive, not only do our friends and neighbors suffer, but so does our state and our economy.

MECEP’s fact sheet reveals what we know, but it also demonstrates the need for more research to identify the root causes of racial disparities in Maine. As a state, we must take stock of the ways inequality is created or reinforced by policy and craft solutions that create a more just economy.

That’s why MECEP supports a bill before the Maine Legislature, LD 777, that would establish a permeant commission to tackle racial inequality in our state.

The commission established by LD 777 would be charged with analyzing state administrative data to see where disparities exist along racial and ethnic lines and identifying additional research needs, particularly to foster understanding of issues where data is limited. This will help policymakers understand the extent of racial and ethnic inequalities in Maine and identify potential solutions.

For example, national studies show that white people in the United States have far greater wealth than people of color. The median net worth for white families was $171,000 in 2016 — nearly ten times the wealth of the average Black family ($17,600) and more than eight times the average wealth of Latinx families ($20,700). These disparities in wealth are partially due to ongoing income inequality, where white Americans earn more and therefore have more assets to invest, but also disparities in access to credit.

Wealth inequality is also the result of policy decisions throughout our history that made it easier for white households to access the tools of wealth building, such as home ownership. Even where explicitly racist policy decisions have been repealed such as the legally sanctioned practice of refusing to provide mortgages to Blacks looking to purchase homes in certain neighborhoods, their effects reverberate over generations.

Recent efforts to study the racial wealth gap in local communities have shown a wide amount of variation in the gap between different parts of the U.S. For example, in Los Angeles, the median net worth of US-born Blacks was just $4,000. In Boston, that figure was a staggeringly-low $8.

A study of the racial wealth gap in Maine would help us understand the scale of the problem locally, and which factors — such as home ownership, student loan debt, access to credit — are most pressing. But this kind of analysis has been impossible at the state level because there is no state-level data on wealth and asset ownership.

Another example of missing data involves the experience of Mainers of color in our public education system. Data shows that Black students are more than twice as likely to be suspended as white students in Maine’s public K-12 schools. Further analysis is needed to determine what is driving this higher rate of suspension – are Black students receiving harsher penalties from school administrators? Are they caused by practices such as culturally-biased dress codes, which punish things like natural African hair? Would encouraging more Black and Brown Mainers to become classroom teachers have a positive impact? Or reducing the rate of poverty among non-white schoolchildren?

Using the Maine Department of Education’s ability to gather data on the state’s public schools and students, the commission could answer some of these questions. The commission would also be empowered to make recommendations to the Legislature and executive agencies about what kinds of data needs must be met to address wealth inequity in Maine.

These are just a few of the examples of racial disparities in Maine that are poorly understood because of a lack of research and data.

The permanent commission that would be established by LD 777 would show that Maine is serious about reducing racial inequality. It would provide a home for the state’s efforts to understand the ways that policy decisions affect different racial and ethnic groups differently and would provide a venue for Maine begin to address centuries of historical wrongs. Enacting the bill would be an easy, commonsense first step and ensure that our economy works for all Mainers — regardless of race.