It’s hard to grow up in the United States without learning about our nation’s painful history of racial disparities. We know about the legacy of slavery and the work of abolitionists, like Maine’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, to end this inhumane system. We learn about the division caused by the Civil War and the incredible sacrifices made by Maine soldiers, like Joshua Chamberlain, to keep our nation united. We have also been taught about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and pivotal events like the 1963 March on Washington, which was attended by Maine civil rights leader Gerald Talbot and Maine’s now-U.S. Senator Angus King.
It’s easy to see the way that our country’s racial divisions impacted each of these periods of our history. And it’s inspiring to see the actions that Mainers made to tear down these barriers. What can sometimes be harder to recognize is the way that these divisions continue to shape our country and our state.
Black Mainers are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white Mainers, and Mainers of color typically experience unemployment and poverty at twice the rate of white Mainers. As we also grapple with a public health crisis, structural racism has severely worsened the effects of the pandemic for racial, Indigenous and Maine tribal populations. In fact, Black Mainers are 20 times more likely to experience COVID-19 than white Mainers.
As lawmakers, we understand that the exposure of these inequities presents an opportunity to do better. Government can’t solve structural racism on its own, but those of us serving in elected office can lead in the fight for racial justice and pry away and dismantle the racist elements ingrained in law and other areas of public policy.
The newly formed Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations serves as an advisory arm for all branches of the State’s government. The Permanent Commission includes representatives from across the state and brings together the voices of tribal leaders, policy experts, non-profit organizations, young people and legislators.
This summer, the Permanent Commission collaborated with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to look at proposed legislation through a new lens. Rather than examining bills through the traditional committee process, they evaluated nearly 500 bills based on their potential to either reduce or widen Maine’s racial divide. This innovative evaluation process allowed members of the Legislature to have a new perspective and to recognize our ability to reduce these disparities.
The final report from the Permanent Commissioner recommends 26 specific bills for the 129th Legislature to pass, and also notes 20 bills that could combat disparities with some additional work. But, perhaps most importantly, the final report also makes recommendations to future Legislatures, including institutionalizing a process that changes how we legislate in the long term.
As policymakers, we cannot create and implement good policy without bringing everyone to the table. We must listen to experts, put ourselves in the shoes of others and acknowledge that the racism now being more widely exposed is a product of centuries-old laws and policies that were designed to perpetuate inequality. We have the ability to make sure our laws and policies set everyone up for success, and we are in the unique position to help right past wrongs and take the lead on making change. This work does not just pertain to governments – we also need to have these conversations in our schools and workplaces to bring more awareness to racial disparities. I am proud of the work the Permanent Commission did, and I look forward to the work that is ahead of all of us."
Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, represents House District 97