“Systemic racism” refers to the complex interaction of societal institutions and embedded normative practices that produce racial inequality by disadvantaging Black Americans, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous peoples.

We hear this term often these days, and rightly so. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people of color across the nation have been contracting and dying from the virus at higher rates than white people. The killing of George Floyd last summer reminded Americans everywhere that Black people, and others of color, are also more likely to be killed or maimed by police and arrested for a wide range of offenses.

These two situations speak to systemic racism in health and criminal justice, respectively, but systemic racism permeates other areas of life, including education, employment, and housing.

One other area, financial well-being, is especially troubling. Nationally, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are more than twice as likely as whites to live below the official federal poverty line. The situation for net wealth — total income, savings, and other assets like investments and home equity — is even more alarming: The median net worth of white households in 2019 was $188,200, compared to only $24,100 for Black households and $36,100 for Latinx households. These racial/ethnic differences are simply staggering.

Maine is a great state in so many ways, but it too exhibits the systemic racism found throughout the rest of the nation. A few numbers from the Coalition on Racial Equity and Maine Equal Justice illustrate this:

  • Black people account for more than 6% of Mainers sickened by COVID, even though they make up only 1% of the state’s population.
  • Black and Indigenous Mainers are about three times more likely than white Mainers to live below the official federal poverty line.
  • Among Maine children, Black and Latinx youngsters are three times more likely than their white peers (about 45% compared to 15%) to live in poverty.
  • Black people account for 12% of the state’s prison population, even though they again make up only 1% of all Mainers.

 

With evidence like this, Maine clearly must do everything possible to reduce systemic racism within our borders. Toward this end, in 2019 the Legislature established the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. This commission has identified more than two dozen pending legislative acts aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities in Maine that were put on hold when the legislature adjourned at the beginning of the pandemic.

One bill, L.D. 2: An Act to Require the Inclusion of Racial Impact Statements in the Legislative Process, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is now before the Legislature. This bill would require the Legislature to assess the potential racial impact, however unintended, of any act the legislature passes. The Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government recently passed L.D. 2 by a 7-5 vote, and it now awaits consideration by the full Legislature.

Racial impact statements are essential as we move forward in achieving equality for all citizens. Seven other states — Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oregon — have instituted these statements. They are akin to the environmental and fiscal impact statements that accompany legislation in many states and are equally necessary.

To illustrate the critical importance of assessing racial impact, one can look to the 1980’s war on drugs in the U.S. When the government cracked down on drugs with more arrests and harsher sentences, criminologists predicted that this would affect people of color more than whites, even though the two groups have roughly equal rates of illegal drug use. And that is exactly what happened, as prisons and jails filled with black and brown faces.

Because systemic racism permeates so many areas of life in and outside of Maine, new legislation may similarly reinforce or even worsen racial and ethnic inequality if its potential racial impact is not considered. Passing L.D. 2 will ensure that Maine is keeping a close watch.

As Talbot Ross told the joint committee before its vote, “Racial injustice does not just harm Black, Indigenous and people of color. It harms all of us. As long as there are those among us who are hampered by it, our communities cannot reach our shared potential economically, culturally or intellectually.”

Steven E. Barkan is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Maine. His column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear monthly.


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