Maine’s governor has declared a race war. How did we get here?
“When you go to war, and you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red, and you dress in blue, you shoot at red,” Maine Governor Paul LePage explained to a room full of reporters on Friday. “And the enemy right now,” he continued, in response to a question about racial profiling, “the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color, or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.”
It’s been a while since the governor of an American state announced to his citizenry that they were in the middle of a race war. Sure, 2016 has been the year in American politics when all racist dog whistles became racist train whistles, but even for the year of Trump, this is a horrific moment. How did we get here? How did the governor wind up making his world view so explicit?
Well, he was trying to prove that he’s not racist.
I’m sure you all remember January 6th of this year, when the governor warned Mainers that guys “with names like D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty,” were coming to Maine to sell heroin and impregnate “white girls.” The criticism he received on that occasion apparently stung, because the governor began keeping a binder full of newspaper articles to substantiate his claims. “I will tell you,” Governor LePage announced last week at a town meeting, “that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn,” and, he added, there “are a whole lot white girls, too, a whole lot of white girls. In fact, in almost every single picture is a white Maine girl in the picture.”
So there you have it; the governor has pictures of black people from the Bronx, and there are white girls in the pictures too! They come to sell their heroin, and then they take our women. Told you so.
But somehow this proof didn’t stop the criticism. Instead, a reporter informed the governor, people had actually criticized him for making “racially charged statements.” Now, one can accidentally say something that is “racially charged”; it doesn’t mean that one is racist, just that one’s racial electrometer is broken. The governor didn’t take it that way, though. Apparently Representative Drew Gattine of Westbrook was one of those who questioned the governor’s racially charged statements, so the governor responded, by his measure, in kind.
“I want you to prove that I’m a racist,” the governor said in the voicemail he left for Representative Gattine, “you little son-of-a-bitch socialist cocksucker.” He went on to tell Gattine to make the voicemail public, and then he called the media, told a reporter about the voicemail he had left, and then fantasized, on camera, about shooting Gattine in the face.
So, despite the fact that in a later press conference, the governor told the media that he had asked Gattine to keep the voicemail private, he very much wanted the world to hear what he had to say on the matter. Why is that the case? Why would the governor be so invested in having the people of Maine (or the nation, it turns out) listen to his creepy, threatening temper tantrum?
Because he really, really, really doesn’t want us to think that he’s racist. Because he wants to insist, publicly, in the strongest terms, that he considers “racist” to be the most objectionable of epithets.
Indeed, that is precisely why the governor said he would “not shy away” from using a homophobic epithet in his recorded tirade; it was “the worst” term he could think of, he said, though not as vile a term as “racist.”
That should settle the question, by the way, of which army the governor thinks Maine’s LBGTQ community has joined. They’re definitely wearing the red uniforms.
Now, in part, the governor’s tirade was the result of our national habit of confusing “racism” and “prejudice.” Racism is systemic, an organized political, economic, and social arrangement for dividing resources, power, and rights across and throughout our nation. The foundations of American racism were established during the earliest years of the Virginia colony, in laws about what kinds of people could potentially have legal standing and what kinds of people could be reduced to mere property. The American Revolution happened over a century later, and to most of the Virginians who played leading roles in the framing of the Constitution, American racism was an indelible part of American law and even American nature.
Individual prejudice helps racism to function, but racism isn’t just present in the ranting of troubled individuals; racism is, in fact, most deadly at the institutional level. So the governor’s giggles over his “D-Money” comments are small potatoes. If you really want to worry about racism, worry about the governor’s binder.
If the information in the governor’s binder is an accurate reflection of arrest records in Maine (and that is a huge “if”), and 90% of drug dealing arrests in a state this is over 95% white are of people of color, then the governor’s binder suggests a staggering degree of racial profiling.
The American Civil Liberties Union defines racial profiling as “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” That is a broad-based institutional issue, not merely a question of individual prejudice. The governor’s binder suggests that the police in Maine are targeting African Americans when they investigate the drug trade. Again, we don’t have much reason to assume that the governor’s binder is reflective of actual arrest data in Maine; but we can’t ignore his boast. And so, a reporter at the governor’s press conference on the 26th asked him specifically about racial profiling. And the governor responded that the “enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.”
Americans tend to focus on racism as an individual shortcoming, as an act of individual prejudice. For example, at the Constitutional Convention, Patrick Henry of Virginia warned that the new, powerful federal government was a conspiracy against slave owners; “gentlemen,” he said, “they are trying to steal our niggers.” (See William Lee Miller’s remarkable The Business of May Next to read more about that episode.) That is the sort of racism that the governor, with good reason, does not want to be accused of, that he finds so deplorable that he’ll call someone a “cocksucker,” the “worst term” he can think of, if they even suggest that he is guilty of it.
And so, in his own defense, the governor instead follows the script written by another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson bemoaned the wrongs done by whites to blacks, and acknowledged that both abolition and the integration of whites with blacks would be just. But, he writes, that solution is impossible. Black men pose a danger to white women, Jefferson warned, and the consequences of that danger would impose unacceptable burdens on Virginia. Jefferson is sorry to report the situation, he tells us, and for the sake of both science and justice, he wishes whites and blacks could live together in peace.
But those are the facts. He couldn’t help it. He just couldn’t.
And so, with a shrug, Jefferson passes over any more talk about race and moves on to his next topic.
The governor wanted to prove that he is not a racist. So he recorded an abusive and homophobic message on the voicemail of a state representative, and demanded that the public listen to it. And then he offered up evidence of, at best, his own selective reading of crime statistics, and at worst evidence of a broad practice of racial profiling. And then he told Mainers that they are in a race war. And so, with a shrug, Governor LePage will try to pass over any more talk about race and move on to his next topic.
But we won’t allow him to do that. All Mainers need to make it clear that we do not see ourselves as engaged in a war against people of color, and that we will not accept the governor’s decision to make life more dangerous for non-whites in Maine merely to shrug off the consequences of his hate speech. We need to make it clear by our votes in November that anyone who uses or even passively accepts this sort of speech does not represent us. We need to make it clear to those in charge of public safety that racial profiling is unacceptable and contrary to their central mission, and we need to demand that the governor’s claims about drug arrests be investigated. And we need to make it clear to any outside interest groups, by letter, by protest, by, as the saying goes, any means necessary, that a LePage campaign for the U.S. Senate would be an unwise investment. He and the people who talk like him are a disgrace to our state, and we are done with them.
Those are the facts. And I couldn’t change them if I wanted to.
Photo via Andi Parkinson.
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