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Before outrage about racial inequality exploded into protests and demands for action, Maine lawmakers created a commission to suggest a way for the state to become more aware of, and more deliberate about rectifying, inequalities here. Last year, the Legislature created the Permanent Commision on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal populations.
This week, the commission released its first recommendations to the Legislature. In a 32-page report, the group identifies three dozen bills, which remain pending before lawmakers, that could improve conditions for people of color and members of tribes in Maine.
The work, to be honest, sounds a bit bureaucratic. But, the outcome — laws that deliberately seek to ease racial disparities — is overdue.
“We can build a future where everyone in Maine has the opportunity to thrive socially and economically regardless of their race or tribal status,” said Joby Thoyalil, a member of the commission and a senior policy advocate at Maine Equal Justice. “The report released today gives us a glimpse of how we could get there, if we approach our legislative process thoughtfully and with a commitment to justice. In order to address racial disparities and chart a path toward that future, policy makers must consider the impacts of their laws on racial, indigenous and tribal populations.”
The premise of the commission is simple, but perhaps difficult to hear. Without an explicit focus on fostering equality, well-meaning bills and policy changes are likely to continue the status quo, which means continuing inequities.
Here is some of the data the commission considered in concluding that structural racism has held back racial, Indigenous and tribal populations over decades and centuries. Black Mainers are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white Mainers. A woman who is a representative of the racial, Indigenous, or tribal population with a college degree earns only slightly more than a white man with a high school diploma. While three-quarters of white Mainers own their own home, the same is true for fewer than one in four Black Mainers. Mainers who are representatives of the racial, Indigenous, or tribal populations typically experience unemployment and poverty at twice the rate of white Mainers. Black Mainers are 20 times more likely to experience COVID-19 than white Mainers.
Past Maine leaders likely didn’t set out to create these disparities. But, without conscious efforts to reduce and end them, these disparities are likely to continue. That’s why the commission is asking lawmakers to take up specific bills that can address these disparities by increasing access to preschool programs and increasing and stabilizing funding for childcare providers, for example. Revising the state’s bail code and better reintegrating prisoners into society could help lessen racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Many such bills could improve the lives of many Mainers, but rather than just hoping that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” to use a cliche, members of the commission suggest that lawmakers take a more deliberate approach of gauging the impact of their proposals on the state’s indigeneous and populations of color.
One simple tool that the commission suggests is a questionnaire that asks how proposed legislation will reduce inequities across a broad spectrum of measures, such as incarceration, access to health care and education, and political representation.
There are concrete examples of this analysis. Earlier this year, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee amended a bill to create a Trust for a Healthy Maine to manage the state’s tobacco settlement funds. The amendment added a member of the permanent commission to the trust and added language about racial justice, health equity and public health. It also calls for improved data collection and reporting on how the funds are used to enhance equity in health care.
This shows that targeting legislation to improve the lives of people who have long been ignored or even harmed by past laws and policies does not have to be difficult. On a basic level. it just takes a dedicated focus on reducing disparities, no matter how they began.
A simple measure like this won’t capture all the complexities and potential outcomes of legislation, but it, and other recommendations in the report, are an important starting point.