Antiracist Public Policy in Maine: Reflecting on a Troubling Past for a Better Future
The episode of Maine Policy Matter covers an article by James Myall, a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy. The article, “Race and Public Policy in Maine: Past, Present, and Future,” explores the impact of historic policy decisions on people of color in Maine.
Trying to understand the history of race and public policy in Maine? Today we will be covering James Myall’s arguments on active antiracism to improve the lives of people of color and correct historic wrongs.
This is the Maine Policy Matters podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine . I am Eric Miller, research associate at the Center.
On each episode of Maine Policy Matters, we discuss public policy issues relevant to the state of Maine. Today, we will be covering an article by James Myall, he is a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, who focuses on health care, education, and the inclusive economy. Myall gives us an inside perspective on his article entitled “Race and Public Policy in Maine: Past, Present, and Future.” This article was published in volume 29, number 2, of Maine Policy Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. For all citations for data provided in this episode, please refer to James Myall’s article in Maine Policy Review.
Myall identifies four factors that contribute to racism and public policy. These are Constructing Whiteness, Second-Class Citizenship, Discriminatory Drug Policy, and School Segregation. First, let’s go back to 1867. In 1867, a heated debate raged in Maine’s legislature and filled newspaper columns across the state. Advocates for Black rights wanted to repeal the state’s long-standing ban on interracial marriages, but opponents rejected the “mixing of the races,” often citing racist theories of white genetic superiority. The Portland Daily Press in 1897 reported on February 4 that people who opposed the repeal were afraid that if families were allowed to have mixed children, that “there will be no Caucasian society left.”
Mainers like to think of themselves as being on the right side of history when it comes to racial justice. Maine entered the union in 1820 as a free state and was home to several abolitionists. Abraham Lincoln appointed one Mainer, Hannibal Hamlin, as his first vice president and
Another, Oliver Otis Howard, to lead the Freedman’s Bureau. The Maine legislature had just recently ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution in the 1860s. Despite this progress, they stumbled at the idea of interracial marriage. The 1867 attempt to end the ban on interracial marriage failed, and Maine’s anti-miscegenation would not be repealed until almost a generation later in 1883.
Myall claims that “This episode is a stark reminder that Maine’s record on racial discrimination is not as clean as conventional wisdom would have us believe. It is easy for residents of northern and western states to assume that racism was largely, or even entirely, confined to the South.”
For example, between 1790 and 1970, the US decennial censuses recorded Maine’s population as at least 99 percent white. As recently as 2018 Maine has 93 percent of its residents identifying as white non-hispanic.
Myall identifies two ways that Maine has been harmful to nonwhites. The first is explicit racism. An example of this would be the prohibition on interracial marriage. The second is implicit discrimination and unintentional harm. Myall cites this discrimination affected not only Black and Indigenous populations, but also groups whose whiteness was questioned, such as Irish and French-Canadian immigrants, and Jewish peoples.
It is important to look at Maine’s past to better understand current policies and the future of Maine’s legislation. The effects of historical racist policies like banning interracial marriages causes a ripple effect through generations. Children inherit the negative impacts of historically exclusionary policies, and so do their grandchildren. Nationally, white families have 10 times the wealth of black families, with this gap being wider in some local areas
To understand historic racism, we have to look at how whiteness was constructed. Myall believes that we need to understand the historic definitions of race. These definitions have changed over time because race is a social construct. The decennial census has categorized Americans into at least 14 different racial and ethnic categories in the past 220 years. In early censuses, Americans were divided between “white” and “colored,” with the definition of colored being somewhat ambiguous.
An example of this in Maine are Acadians in 1764 and 1765, once deemed “French Neutrals” after being evicted from what is now Nova Scotia. Acadians were not the only group considered to be only partly white, or white in an inferior sense. Other immigrant groups were also deemed lower status. In Maine, Irish and French-Canadian immigrants suffered discrimination alongside people of color, though generally not to the same degree. Maine’s Jewish community was seen as both religiously and racially distinct.
Another aspect of Maine’s history with discrimination is the second-class citizenship status of nonwhite groups. The 1890 Census found that among men aged 21 and older, just 3 percent of native-born white Mainers with native-born parents were illiterate, compared to 12 percent of those with foreign-born parents, 25 percent of those who were themselves born abroad, and 38 percent of Mainers of color. The literacy amendment did specify that voters who were already registered could keep their registration without passing the literacy test, which was for first-time voters only. However, 1893 also saw the creation of local voter registration boards, which had the ability to remove voters from the rolls and make them reapply.
Discriminatory drug policy is something that greatly affects nonwhite communities today. Black Mainers are six times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Hispanic white Mainers.This disparity has a long history, extending back at least as far as 1840 when the US Census Bureau began tracking rates of incarceration. Throughout Maine’s history, people of color have been incarcerated at much higher rates than white Mainers. Maine’s recent experience with decriminalizing cannabis hints at one possible way to tackle these disparities. However, there are deeper inequities to address in Maine’s criminal justice system. Once arrested, Mainers of color face harsher charges and sentences. A recent report by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments found that Mainers of color, especially Black Mainers, were more likely to be charged with serious drug offenses.
Segregation in schools also has roots in Maine. The right to public education has been enshrined in the Maine Constitution since 1820, but its provision has not always been universal or equitable. Maine towns with Black communities often created segregated school systems. Such separate schools were found in Portland, Brunswick, Warren, and Machias when white residents objected to their children attending integrated schools. In Atusville in Machias, the Black community established its own school in 1853 after their children were attacked by white students for trying to attend the local school.
Economic hardship also limits children’s access to education. While Maine had some early laws limiting the use of child labor and punishing truancy, the laws were irregularly enforced until federal legislation outlawed child labor. For many low-income families, the decision to send a child to school meant losing an income. Economic necessity likely depressed school enrollment among children from immigrant families and families of color.
Today, Mainers of color still face educational disparities. Black, Latino, and American Indian students graduate high school at lower rates than white Mainers. Black and Latino students in the University of Maine System are also less likely to graduate within six years of enrolling than white students White K–12 students in Maine are one-and-a-half times more likely to be enrolled in AP classes than Black students, while Black students are two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended.
So, what can Maine lawmakers do to change the course of Maine’s public policy towards more racial justice? Myall concludes with the following message:
To truly achieve racial justice in Maine, policymakers need to be deliberately antiracist, with actions that work to overturn more than two centuries of harm. Lawmakers need to recognize the legacy of this harm and the need for targeted policies that repair it. Lawmakers need to continue to ensure that people of color aren’t left out of broadly progressive economic measures like the minimum wage. Lawmakers need to be keenly aware that legislation can have racist effects even without racist language or intention and to consider the racial impact of new policies. Antiracism requires consistent and deliberate work, but it is possible. Mainers deserve no less.
What you just heard was James Myall’s perspective on the history of race and public policy in Maine. Maine Policy Review is a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.
The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka, and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, scriptwriters for Maine Policy Matters, and to Daniel Soucier, our production consultant.
In two weeks, we will be covering Llyod Irland’s piece entitled, “From Wilderness to Timberland to Vacationland to Ecosystem: Maine’s Forests, 1820–2020.”
We would like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. You can find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases.
I am Eric Miller–thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.