Sen. Susan Collins said that she doesn’t believe systemic racism is a problem in Maine during the final Senate debate Wednesday evening.
Collins and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon were the only candidates invited to participate in the debate, hosted by WMTW. Steve Bottari, a WMTW anchor, moderated the debate and posed the two front runners a question about racial justice, citing recent news that the superintendent of Scarborough Public Schools included Black Lives Matter on a list of “controversial” phrases.
“Is the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ controversial, and is there a systemic racism problem here in Maine where 95 percent of people identify as white?” Bottari asked.
Collins said that the phrase “should not be controversial” and pivoted to reiterating her support for police officers. “I am pleased to support them,” Collins said. “At the same time, it is clear that in some parts of our country there is systemic racism or problems in police departments.”
When Bottari pressed Collins to clarify if she included Maine in that statement, she said that she does not.
“I do not believe systemic racism is a problem in the state of Maine,” Collins said.
In her response, Gideon said that systemic racism is manifest in institutions nationally and within Maine.
“When we look at the incidents of, for example, the number of people of color here in the state of Maine who had a positive COVID infection rate and how outsized that was compared to the rest of the population,” she said. “We see it in terms of access to education for people of color. We see it in terms of access to health care, rates of poverty, rates of incarceration.”
Worst coronavirus disparity in the nation
Systemic racism, also sometimes referred to as institutional or structural racism, is defined by Racial Equity Tools as “the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color.” Examples of systemic racism can be found across sectors of society, from housing to education to healthcare.
As Gideon mentioned, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine has had the worst racial disparity in cases in the country.
As of Oct. 1, Black people made up 17.9 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases and just 1.42 percent of the state’s overall population, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In comparison, white people made up 67.7 percent of the state’s cases and 94.2 percent of the overall population.
In June, Black and immigrant leaders called on the governor to “declare racism a public health emergency,” because of the way the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities in healthcare and the economy.
Frontline workers are 31 percent more likely to be Black, compared to the full workforce, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
Racially-biased outcomes in many Maine institutions
Even before the pandemic and resulting recession, Maine had one of the worst rates of Black poverty in the nation. According to U.S. Census data, one out of every two Black Mainers lives in poverty, compared with 27.6 percent nationally. For Indigenous people in Maine, the poverty rate is one out of every three.
In the state’s criminal justice system, there is a significant racial disparity in how harshly people are sentenced.
A report from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center published last year looked back through arrest records, court filings and prison and probation admissions in Maine from 2008 to 2018. It found that throughout every class of criminal charges, Black people in the state’s carceral system are sentenced disproportionately when compared to white people.
Overall, although Black people make up one percent of the population, they received 12 percent of prison sentences in 2018.
Mainers of color have also shared incidents of racism and racial bias in the state’s schools. During a panel discussion this summer, young people related experiences from the explicit, such as being called the n-word, to the subtle, like being taught exclusively from a European perspective or being more frequently cited for violating the school’s dress code.
Students and recent graduates of Bangor High School told the Bangor Daily News about the persistence of racism throughout their school experience.
“Racism is my high school experience,” said high school junior Kosi Ifeji. “I know it sounds bad, but it really is.”
In June, following the police killing of George Floyd, members of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations sent a letter to Governor Janet Mills calling on her to take specific steps to address systemic racism in Maine.
Among the actions the Commission requested is directive calling on state agencies to collect and publish data disaggregated by race, ethnicity and tribal status wherever possible, so that the state can better understand how racism shows up within institutions.
Denying systemic racism a right-wing trope
Some conservative politicians, when asked about systemic racism, usually in the context of police violence against Black people, have made statements similar to Collins’ denying its existence.
More recently, when pressed on these issues, however, even President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have admitted the existence of racial institutional bias.
“I think it is. It’s unfortunate, but I think it is,” Trump said when asked by Bob Woodward in an interview if “there is systematic or institutional racism in this country.”
“There is no question that there is residual racism in America. No question about that,” McConnell said when asked about systemic racism in policing.
Photos: Screenshots via WMTW