Six years ago, when Shay Stewart-Bouley’s biracial son was 16 and visiting from Los Angeles at her Saco home, the teenager did what white Mainers do without a second thought: He walked to the store to get a sandwich.

The boy, who identifies as black, returned home a few minutes later in the back of a police squad car, Stewart-Bouley remembered. “My son said the cop was looking at him and said, ‘You look sort of suspicious, what are you doing in this area?'” she recalled.

Stewart-Bouley’s partner, a white man, answered the door when police arrived. The officer asked whether the boy really lived there.

“It was our first (moment of feeling like), ‘Oh my God, this is really real,'” said Stewart-Bouley, the director of a Boston anti-discrimination group who also writes a blog called “Black Girl in Maine.”

“My son was shook up,” she said. “Even in southern Maine and in Portland, I think there’s a fairly high level of denial to know what it means to be a person of color.”

The racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered by the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer, has stimulated conversations around the country in the past few weeks about institutional racism and police relationships with the communities they serve.

A forum last week at the Portland Public Library, organized by the Maine NAACP to discuss ways to improve race relations in Maine in the wake of the violence and protests in Ferguson, drew about 150 people of various races who said they wanted a frank discussion about race relations.

Even in racially homogenous Maine, minorities say they sometimes receive extra scrutiny for what they believe is little else than the color of their skin, even as police departments say they have made efforts to reach out to all the communities they are sworn to protect.

In Maine, only 5 percent — about 83,300 — of the state’s roughly 1.3 million residents do not identify as white, according to U.S. Census figures. Rooting out institutional discrimination is particularly challenging here, according to leaders in the African-American community.

For his part, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department tries to engage with communities, humanizing officers and hopefully instilling trust in law enforcement — preemptive efforts that are more effective than if police attempt to make inroads only after a violent encounter.

“The reality is, if you attempt to build or create relationships after the bad thing has happened, whatever that bad thing may be, it’s much more difficult to alleviate concerns and much more difficult to work through whatever the problem may be,” he said.

Sauschuck said his department works hard to maintain positive relations with different segments of the community.

“I would like to think our strong community outreach efforts, our community policing efforts and our ongoing efforts at collaborating with everybody who lives in the city of Portland would help us work through any situation that would arise,” he said.

Sauschuck said the events unfolding in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, underscore for his officers the importance of positive community relations, including programs such as having senior lead officers work with community policing center coordinators on neighborhood issues.

Sauschuck said he is making an effort to hire more non-white officers, but recruitment is difficult. About 15 percent of the population of Portland is non-white, compared with roughly 5 percent of the police force, which includes three black officers.

Overall, Maine police have shown a willingness to work with communities and engage in smart policing tactics, said Rachel Healy, communications director for the ACLU of Maine.

“I hope it stays that way. We need to be vigilant to be sure we are not susceptible to racialized policing tactics and the sorts of things that cause distrust in the communities escalating to situations like the one in Ferguson,” she said.

Minority communities in Maine are small in numbers, geographically dispersed and disconnected, which can be both a blessing and a curse, said Stewart-Bouley, the Saco mother and blogger. That means the state in general does not have areas of concentrated black or minority populations that police could target for heavier enforcement, but the dispersion also isolates minorities and leads to a lack of community support, she said.

Rev. Kenneth Lewis, who has lived in Maine since he was appointed pastor in 2003 at the Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Munjoy Hill, grew up in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s when racial tensions were high. In Maine, he said, old racial concepts sometimes remain unchallenged, sometimes for generations, and can limit Mainers’ understanding of a more diverse, larger world.

“People in Maine still use the phrase ‘colored,'” Lewis said. “I’ve heard it before. It means you’re stuck in a time warp. So if you’re not forced to confront any other way, it can be difficult” to change.

Lewis said he has watched as refugees from African nations, for whom the American history of slavery and race is alien, resettle in Portland and endure treatment that African-Americans who moved to Maine from elsewhere would protest.

“Someone who is (African-American) from Cleveland or New Jersey might not be as docile,” he said. “So I will correct one person at a time, every single time, and I think … as the community ‘browns’ over time, might there be some level of change in the wiring?”

Institutional racism is a vestige of slavery and post-emancipation discrimination and violence that remain a part of Americans’ collective psyche, said Keita Whitten, a therapist in South Portland who also teaches multiculturalism in higher education and businesses.

She compared the generational trauma stemming from the U.S. history of slavery passed down to the present day to the generational trauma that survivors of the Holocaust experienced. The difference, she said, is that there has never been a truth and reconciliation process for slavery, and those forces of inequality persist.

To eradicate racism means Americans need to recognize that racism still exists in various forms and must be willing to endure difficult conversations before the country can make progress.

“It’s like when I do therapy. If you want change and healing, then we have to call stuff for what it is,” she said. “Until we can get down and tell the truth … we can’t get better.”

Staff Writer David Hench contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne — 791-6303

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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