As it does throughout the country, publicly available data in Maine paints a picture of economic, health, education, and criminal justice systems that work better for whites than for people of color in our state. A bill now before the Legislature, LD 777, would give our state a meaningful way to examine the structural barriers that lead to racial inequality and begin to identify and implement solutions that ensure all of us — Black, white, and Brown — have a fair shot at success.
Research shows that race-based outcomes are not a function of individual causes but are the result of systemic barriers to success faced by people of color. Federal, state, and local policies throughout our history have created relative privilege for white Mainers while making it harder for indigenous communities, Black families, and other Mainers of color to thrive.
By nearly every measure for which there is data, Native Americans, Black Mainers, and immigrants of color have poorer outcomes than white Mainers. These disparities are mirrored at the national level.
Native American and Black Mainers experience unemployment rates that are double the state average.[i] These populations receive lower wages, and are thus more likely to live in poverty, than white Mainers.[ii] The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has reported that police departments in Maine arrest members of these populations at higher rates than whites.[iii] Racial disparities also can be found in educational achievement, incarceration rates, and health outcomes.
The effect of our state’s and nation’s history of racial discrimination continues to harm in ways that cannot be ignored. Discriminatory policy throughout our history is inextricably linked to racial disparities today. In Maine, that history includes efforts to displace and disempower Wabanaki peoples while laying claim to their territories and natural resources. It includes the destruction of the Black and mixed-race fishing community on Malaga Island, where residents were forcibly evicted or incarcerated on specious grounds by the state’s white governor in the early 20th century. It includes a 2011 law that denied Medicaid and other safety net benefits to legally present immigrants. These are just a few of the countless examples.
This bill would create a Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Populations, which would identify and help counter the widespread systemic disadvantages faced by racial, ethnic, and tribal populations in Maine.
It’s important that this commission and the solutions it will advance are not about pointing fingers or litigating whether any individual or institution has racist intentions. It is about addressing policies, habits, and outcomes — built up over generations and centuries — that created a status quo in which our public policies and institutions work better for some Mainers than for others.
Some of these problems are the result of deliberate policy decisions, such as the federal government’s “redlining” policy which excluded nonwhite people from home ownership for decades. Others are caused by less conscious decisions, such as when school districts adopt dress codes that discriminate against Black children’s natural hair.
Racial disparities can result from all kinds of decisions, conscious and unconscious, small and large. But these disparities pervade our economic system and lead to broadly experience racial injustice.
As a policy analyst, I work with data all the time, and I can tell you that the work of this commission would be incredibly valuable in crafting new policies. While publicly available data that currently exists for Maine shows us that racial disparities exist, there are limitations to what we can glean from the data that’s currently available. Without more information, it’s harder to craft solutions to address inequity.
That’s where the permanent commission established by LD 777 would come in. My hope is that the commission could improve on the publicly available data in three key ways:
- Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives to connect the dots between policies and outcomes in different agencies in state government
- Examining existing unpublished state administrative data for racial disparities
- Advocating for the collection of new data
Most of the currently available data comes from federal agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, which conduct national surveys of a sample of the population. Analyzing this data for racial disparities in Maine is difficult because you’re looking at a small subset of the population (about 6 percent)[iv] within a small state (about 0.4 percent of the total U.S. population).
For example, the American Community Survey, one of the larger federally-sponsored data sets, is conducted by the Census Bureau every year. In 2017, it collected information on almost 3.2 million Americans. Of these, just under 12,500 lived in Maine. Of those, just 736 identified as something other than white non-Hispanic, and only 205 of those identified as Black or African-American.[v]
These figures are reliable representations of our state’s population. However, they pose challenges in analysis. The commission has the potential to use state administrative data to get a more detailed picture of what’s going on here in Maine, based on total counts of individuals rather than a survey sample.
Bringing together stakeholders to look at more precise indicators will help us get to the heart of our racial disparities in Maine. Racial inequality has deep roots in America, and in Maine. It won’t be a quick fix to undo the cumulative effect of systemic barriers that have affected people of color in our state for generations. But we have to begin to seriously address this problem if we truly want a Maine that’s welcoming for everyone, and a Maine in which everyone can succeed, regardless of the color of their skin, or the country of their birth.
[i] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2017 5-year data.
[ii] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2017 5-year data.
[iii] ACLU Maine. “Maine police Departments show staggering race gaps in arrests.” November 2014. https://www.aclumaine.org/en/press-releases/maine-policedepartments-show-staggering-race-gaps-arrests
[iv] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2017 data via the Integrated Public Use Microdata System (IPUMS). 5.6% of Mainers identified as something other than white, non-Hispanic.
[v] MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2017 data via the Integrated Public Use Microdata System (IPUMS). 205 individuals identified as black alone or in combination with another race or ethnicity.