It’s Black History Month, time to assess how much racism Maine has been spewing out lately.
The answer: quite a bit, which seems to be the score every year.
One of the latest examples of less-than-subtle racist activity occurred earlier this month when unsuccessful Portland City Council candidate Richard Ward showed up in Congress Square waving a banner that read, “It’s OK to be white.”
Given that white people have dominated this state since we stole it from the natives, that sentiment should be painfully obvious. “It’s not a hate flag,” Ward told the Bangor Daily News. “I just don’t believe every white person is a racist.”
Me neither. But I have strong suspicions about Ward. The message the banner was intended to convey is considerably less profound than Ward probably thinks it is. As an extremist talking point, it falls under literary critic Lionel Trilling’s description of right-wing rhetoric: “a series of irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.”
More disturbing than the rantings of the occasional crank are a pair of studies by researchers at the University of Southern Maine and Northeastern University released late last year that show police in Portland and South Portland cite and arrest Black people far more often than would be expected given their small percentage of the population. Between 2018 and 2020, Blacks in Portland accounted for 17 percent of arrests, but just 5 percent of city residents. In SoPo, which is 3.5 percent Black, they racked up 15 percent of arrests.
Are the cops in those two municipalities racist? In a twist that only somebody like Richard Ward would appreciate, the researchers claimed they couldn’t tell. The police, however, had no such hesitancy in answering that question. “[W]e don’t have a bunch of racist cops pulling people over because of the color of their skin,” South Portland Police Chief Daniel Ahern told the Portland Press Herald.
In Gorham, it’s once again white people claiming they’re being discriminated against. Eric Lane, a parent of a student and a sort of Richard Ward of the suburbs, filed a complaint against the school superintendent alleging that white job applicants were being rejected because of their race. Lane cited an email from the super to school board members that said job seekers who aren’t fully certified for the positions they sought applied “because they are white candidates who feel empowered to do so.”
In Jay, two high school students were expelled for smearing racist graffiti and swastikas on bathroom walls. In Lewiston, two dozen neo-Nazis marched through downtown. In Skowhegan, parents of minority students said their complaints about their children being subjected to racist taunts were ignored. In Millinocket, an insurance company posted a sign on its door on the day commemorating the end of slavery that read, “Juneteenth — it’s whatever … We’re closed. Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens.”
There’s lots more. Racial slurs at the high school in Fairfield. A Confederate flag displayed in New Gloucester’s Memorial Day parade. Protests in Portland middle schools over ignored complaints about bias. An Auburn Housing Authority worker who told a Black tenant complaining about mold in her apartment to “shut the fuck up, you Black bitch.”
Black lives matter? Apparently not all that much.
Even so, it’s OK to be white. Except maybe in Gorham.
The problem here isn’t rowdy kids. The problem isn’t racist cops. The problem isn’t even about teaching critical race theory in schools. The problem is an ingrained and imaginary belief that Black people (and folks of a variety of other shades) are a threat to the established order, by which I mean the established white order.
In reality, the opposite is true, as demonstrated by arrest records, expulsion records, workplace bias, masked Nazis, graffiti, signs and banners. The nation’s whitest state is making sure no uppity minority threatens its status as a bastion of intolerance.
Because once Maine starts to give ground on the issue of Black people’s basic civil rights, it’s only a matter of time before the Indian tribes in the state will demand sovereignty, and transgender people will start using the bathroom of their choice.
We might even see banners reading, “It’s OK to be reasonable.”
It’s also OK to email me at [email protected]