On June 19, 2020, also known as Juneteenth, a noose was hung from a utility line in Hancock County near a lawn sign that declared “WHITE LIVES MATTER,” as widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality spread throughout the country. The historic holiday commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, and the noose – a symbol of lynching and hate crimes against Black Americans – caused an awakening for many white citizens from Hancock County like us, who had underestimated the prevalence of racism in our home community.

Also last June, Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane canceled a contract with local nonprofit Healthy Acadia, which provided recovery coaching to incarcerated individuals battling substance use disorder in the county jail. Kane took offense at the organization’s public support for Black Lives Matter, which he called a “terrorist organization,” a remark that is both untrue and blatantly racist. Black Lives Matter is, in fact, a human rights movement “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise,” and was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. While hanging a noose is an individual act of racism, the fact that Sheriff Kane holds the power to pull critical public health services because of his own misguided beliefs is a clear example of how systemic racism can harm Mainers.

Systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, is a widely misunderstood concept that has oppressed people of color in our country since slavery and is still embedded in virtually all levels of society today – including criminal justice and health care. NAACP President Derrick Johnson defines systemic racism as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans,” which is clear when we look at its effects on people of color in Maine. Black people represented just 1 percent of the state’s population in 2018, yet 12 percent of the state’s incarcerated individuals were Black. Last June, Maine also had the highest racial disparity of COVID-19 cases in the nation, with a person of color representing one in every three. This is systemic racism in action.

Sheriff Kane stripped incarcerated individuals in Hancock County of recovery services, which they went without for more than six months until his decision was reversed last week because of public outcry. This decision could not have come at a worse time. From January to September 2020 there was a 24 percent increase in overdose deaths compared to the same period the year prior in Maine. While not the only approach to treating substance use disorder, recovery coaching is a cornerstone of effective treatment that increases retention and specifically addresses many of the associated mental health issues. Like everywhere in the U.S., people of color are overrepresented in Maine jails, and are therefore disproportionately harmed by the removal of life-saving services.

When policies oppress people of color, that is systemic racism. When Mainers are left without essential public health services because of a sheriff’s racist reaction, that is also systemic racism.

The question we face is not whether racism exists in Hancock County, but rather, what we are going to do about it. While there is no easy fix for something so deeply entrenched in our society, one step each of us can take is to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions when it becomes clear that they cannot be trusted to protect all Mainers.

Upon facing public pushback, Sheriff Kane said his decision was “an emotional reaction” to the Black Lives Matter movement. We deserve a sheriff who does not make decisions that perpetuate racism in our community, and we must demand that Scott Kane’s authority be removed. County Commissioner John Wambacher has already called for Kane’s resignation, and citizens can join the call by emailing the county commissioners’ office at [email protected].

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