Misattributing LePage’s actions to a breakdown, or He was always a bigot and a racist

I dislike having to continue to talk about my state’s governor, Paul LePage, because he’s not going to change, the legislature is probably going to continue to not really act against him in a substantive way (though they may end up surprising us), and to malign him is to preach to the choir for much of Maine’s population (and to spit into the wind when it comes to the less-than-half of Mainers who truly support him…let’s not forget he didn’t win by a majority of the vote in either of his elections).

So, why are we here again, when I just talked about him a few days ago?

Well, in a way it’s not really LePage I’m talking about. He’s more an avatar of a problem I’d like to address: People’s continuing reluctance to call out his (and others’) racism and to deflect from the fact he’s a toxic bigot. And, in so doing…over and over…those who do so show their own anti-Black (and anti-Muslim, and anti-lots-of-other-things) biases and bigotry, however subtle or deeply hidden they may be.

When LePage talked about his binder of dealers and left a profanity-laden voicemail message for a Maine legislator (Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook) whom he thought had called him a racist, there were legislators and other citizens of the state who cried out that LePage was showing himself unfit to hold the governor’s office because of his actions.

Except the actions that people called him out on—the actions that really set them off and made them feel he was unfitwere being insulting to a white legislator and, as some maintained, that some of LePage’s remarks showed him to be homophobic. Precious few people were focusing on the fact that LePage had just accused non-white people, particularly Black and Latinx people, of being the enemy. Accusing them, in denial of all the statistics that say most drug traffickers are white, of being the source of drugs in Maine and of impregnating white girls before they leave.

He did it before now, though perhaps in less dramatic a fashion, as he didn’t paint Black and Brown people as military-style enemies who presumably should be dealt with violently back then—at least not as obviously. But he’s said multiple times how non-white people are the problem. And not just with regard to drugs. He’s blamed African immigrants for disease in this state as well as accusing them of being financial leeches. He’s gone so far as to blame them for diseases that are carried by insects and not people.

In Boston on August 29, just after the latest “binder of dealers” brouhaha, he doubled down and said: “The heroin-fentanyl arrests are not white people. They’re Hispanic and they’re black and they’re from Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, Waterbury, Connecticut the Bronx and Brooklyn.”

Never mind that FBI stats say fewer than 15 percent of drug traffickers arrested in Maine are Black or Brown. Are we to believe less than a fifth of the traffickers are responsible for all of the heroin and fentanyl in the state?

Since the very start of his first term after the 2010 election, LePage has worn his bigotry openly on his sleeve.

Now many people want to say he’s having a breakdown or that he’s lapsed into booze. Hell, I’ve said as much with regard to the latter, but not the way I think most people are. I just think he drank too much the day he called Gattine and let his true self spill out even more. Most people want to attribute his latest comments and actions to a breakdown or to alcoholism. They make out like he’s just gone over the deep end.

But he’s always been over the deep end. He’s always been steeped in a white supremacy, bigot-minded world of his own. And it’s not, in my opinion, because of any illness of his mind or weakness for liquor. It’s because he was evil from the start, and he’s still evil now.

Except that people aren’t focusing enough on the fact that he’s always spouted racist filth and is just doing so more boldly now.

To attribute his actions now to anything but willful ignorance and vileness when he’s shown us what he is from the beginning is to distract from how racist he is and how much his words invigorate other racists and help contribute to an insidious creep in the minds of anyone who’s not racist but is just biased. Because we all have biases and, when it comes to Black and Brown people and the threat they supposedly pose, those biases run deep in most white people everywhere. Anything that deflects from the sheer evil of LePage’s words is one more chance for the idea that Black and Brown people are a threat to seep into more minds, even ones that consider themselves open and progressive.

LePage may be having a breakdown. He might be hitting the sauce. But all that is irrelevant.

Because he’s always been a racist, and the majority of Maine (and the nation) has turned a blind eye to that fact from the start. Some have pointed out he’s racist, but not the majority of his detractors. They’re too often afraid to use the word “racist.” Even Gattine stressed that he didn’t recall calling LePage a racist but rather said his remarks were racially insensitive. From my standpoint, Gattine should have said, “I don’t think I called the governor a racist exactly, but now that I think about it, I really should have.”

Not nearly enough people have said what needs to be said, and no one should let him get out from under the fact that he is a racist, through and through. And if you haven’t recognized that before now, there might be a chance you are too…or that you are at risk of becoming one.

I’d rather that this moment in time be the eye-opening one that lets people truly admit what they’ve been to afraid to say all along.

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When Paul LePage went full-on racist, or Paul’s binder of dealers

I really had no intention of ever wasting any more words on Maine’s governor, Paul LePage. I thought I had said all that I needed to say several months ago in my open letter to the governor but then the past several days happened. The quick-and-easy version is that several days ago at a local town hall meeting in North Berwick, Maine, LePage once again stated his belief that Black men are bringing the drugs to Maine and he once again insinuated that these same Black men end up with Maine’s fair maidens, aka white women. Oh boy! Here we go again! But wait! LePage was only getting started. Turns out that the governor who has publicly admitted to not reading the newspaper has been keeping his own private binder of who’s who among Maine’s drug dealers (makes you almost long for Mitt Romney’s “binders of women” instead). And in this private binder of his, there are an awful lot of Blacks and Latinos who are driving up Interstate 95 from exotic locales such as Waterbury, Conn., and Brooklyn, N.Y. to sell their poison to unsuspecting Mainers. According to him, this is an accurate representation of arrests of drug dealing fiends, and he says 90 percent of them are Black or Brown.

Oh dear! But wait! We aren’t even halfway through this week’s adventure in Maine politics. Nope, after receiving blowback from many across the state, the governor decided to ratchet things up by calling a Democratic lawmaker and in a profanity-laden voicemail that sounded suspiciously like a man who was under the influence of something more than a triple Venti mocha, he used homophobic slurs, swore profusely, threatened the lawmaker and basically buried himself in a very deep hole that caught everyone’s attention. When’s the last time a sitting governor told called a lawmaker vile names, left it on a voicemail and essentially said run and tell that? I am from Illinois, the land of governors who end up doing federal time (Rod Blagojevich anyone?), but even in the land of Lincoln and a side of criminality, at least our governors don’t go get that gully.

So just when everyone is looking askance and wondering what the hell is wrong with Paul LePage, in trying to defend himself, he pretty much hit the nuclear option by statingLook, a bad guy is a bad guy, I don’t care what color it is. When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.”

While a large majority of Maine’s media was still trying to unpack LePage’s drunken tirade, the unfortunate fact is this: For hours, most people seemed to have overlooked the fact that Maine’s sitting governor essentially called people of color enemies of the state of Maine. News of the tirade has hit the national media circuit yet few are willing to even touch LePage’s latest words in the midst of his attempts to explain his actions.

Where do we even start? For starters, none of this surprises me. Since day one, LePage’s verbal blunders and gaffes have been largely overlooked, yet as a person of color who happens to live in Maine, I  haven’t missed a thing (and they aren’t blunders or gaffes…they are intentionally crude). Over the years, LePage has increasingly pushed a narrative that others anyone who is not white, from his refusal to attend Maine NAACP events that are customary for governors to attend to telling  Barack Obama to kiss his ass. The handwriting has been on the wall since LePage introduced us to his imaginary Black criminals (better known as Smoothy, D-Money, and Shifty) that he was setting the framework for complete vilification of Black and Brown people in Maine.

The thing is that LePage is essentially an unrepentant asshole who is a racist despite having “adopted” a Black Jamaican. And this moment didn’t happen in a vacuum. Every time people brushed off LePage’s racialized comments and attempted to soften his harsh and direct language by instead suggesting that LePage is “crazy” or “nuts” (or “just speaking his mind”) we allowed him to more or less continue without consequences.  The Maine House voted against impeaching him months ago, instead passing a resolution calling for cooperation and civil behavior. I think it’s safe to say that resolution meant very little to LePage and, well, now we are here.

There are many levels to this story and I won’t even begin to delve deeper but I will say that for Black and Latinx people in the state of Maine, the sense of fear is real. When people hear their governor say that Black and Brown people are the enemy in a state where 95 percent of the residents are white, what is the real impact on actual residents of color? It’s tense interactions, it’s fear. Fear that if you wander outside of whatever happens to be your safe zone, that you are essentially a walking target (and perhaps not even so safe in that zone). A drive in the country on a beautiful day might be just a little less beautiful as you encounter watchful eyes who wonder if you are bringing poison into “their” state. Never mind that the state has a rich history that does indeed include non-white people, because the implication of LePage’s words and those unspoken ones of his supporters serve to de-legitimize the presence of people of color in Maine. For people like LePage, if you’re Black or Brown, you must be bringing drugs or diseases to the state, or at the very least are leeching off the welfare system.

The thing is when people don’t speak up, this is what happens. And it happens most of the time. White people trade on white politeness and civility rather than speaking truth to power. They overwhelmingly remain silent and allow the weasels and the dreck of humanity to gain a foothold.

Though it may be that LePage’s attack on a white, male lawmaker could be his downfall, which once again speaks to how white privilege and anti-Black bias works. You can say the most horrendous things about people of color for years and while it’s bad, you still get re-elected and never really see any consequences. However, it’ suddenly beyond the pale when the object of attack is another white man. Granted, if LePage’s expletive-filled tirade somehow results in his leaving office sooner than later, I doubt that too many of us would drop any tears. But if we are serious about being a truly racially inclusive state and country, we must look beneath the surface and see how our own silence can contribute to the creation of even greater problems.
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Living in Maine while non-white…the 2016 update

“Similar to the criminal justice system, stark disparities, particularly with respect to race, exist in school discipline. Black students, for example, are nearly universally overrepresented in suspensions. This occurs even here in Maine, where in Bangor, while blacks represent only 2.5 percent of the student body, 12 percent of all suspensions at Bangor High School are black students. Is this the result of differences in misbehavior? The research tends to suggest not.” Michael Rocque

One of the most consistent questions that has managed to stay in my inbox since I started this blog is what is life in Maine like for non-white people? Honestly, your results may vary. I have a Black girlfriend here who states that she has encountered very little in the way of direct racism while I have heard from hundreds of other people of color that microaggressions are a daily part of their existence in Maine. A Mexican friend up in the northern part of the state recently shared a racist exchange she had at a Bangor area bookstore. I have heard tales of jobs where being called outside one’s name and referred to as a racial slur is a daily norm. This may be illegal, but Maine is a small place (population-wise, at least) and many choose not to take action for fear of blowback; after all, we are all but two degrees of separation from knowing each other.  I have heard the most grueling tales of racism endured on a daily basis. I have friends here whose adult children no longer come home to Maine due to the racism they endured here as children and teens. I have met older adults who regret the years they spent here and the high toll it took on them to be “other” to always be fighting for their humanity. I have experienced my own all-too-frequent racial interactions that were subtly or overtly abusive to me.

I have received more than enough hate mail over the years telling me that I have no right to critique Maine and that my job is to assimilate and shut up! I never do as I am told…sorry! Besides, assimilation stew is nasty, it all melds together and nothing stands out.

Even in a racially homogenous state like Maine, the number of Black youth and adults disproportionately involved in the prison system rivals that of the national data. Our kids are still suspended at rates that are not proportional to their enrollment in school systems. Even in a quiet, homey, polite white state like Maine, mass incarceration and the “school-to-prison pipeline” exists. Which is ironic, since far too many white Mainers are unwilling to engage in deep conversations on race; because of the absence of a large number of people of color, many believe that racism is someplace else and race isn’t an issue of concern here. Hell, much of New England has a mental block when it comes to seeing racism. After all, we never had the history of the Southern states. Thus we are “better”…but that is far from factual. Better for whom? In many ways the Southern style of straight-up racism served on a platter with the steaming stench of outright hate leaves no room for ambiguity. Hell, even in my beloved Chicago, the hate was far more outright than in Maine, and that is confusing and troubling.  Maine is a place that even in our younger and hipper spaces, we haven’t unpacked the racial morass nearly as much as we believe that we have. Many of us notice when we walk into galleries and upscale eateries, we don’t receive the same warm reception that our white peers and colleagues do and if you are like me, you can even get banned from a restaurant just for complaining politely about one meal after having enjoyed and tipped generously for many previous ones.

The hateful racism so many of associated with the South may seem worse, but is it really better for people to force smiles in your presence or hold their tongues, only to slyly stab you in the back later?

Navigating Maine as a non-white person requires a willingness to go the extra mile; it means realizing that you will probably have to offer up more of yourself than you are accustomed to doing in order to be accepted. It means living with limited access to things that everyone else takes for granted: getting a proper haircut (Black hair texture is very different), buying any kind of makeup (my but almost all those shades at the drug store are geared toward pale skin), worshipping at church or just buying the yummies for a holiday meal.

For the vast majority of people of color in Maine, racism is a very real thing and it does impact your life, yet living in a world that elevates whiteness means that there are very few safe spaces. In a sense, knowing that makes Maine just as good as anywhere else. I mean, racist cops and racist school systems exist in places where people of color are a majority as well.

The demographics of Maine, though, at least make it easier to take a stand and work for change at times. In our largest city, Portland, Pious Ali, an African-born American, won a seat on the school board a few years ago and is now running for City Council. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Black woman whose family has been at the forefront of working for civil rights in this state, is running for the Maine legislature. Two people of color in a state this small running to make a difference! And hell the number of people in this state is so small that I can actually say that I know both of them personally!  

Maine lacks a geographic community that belongs to Blacks, Latinx and so on, yet people tend to know people and despite the jokes about how small our communities of color are, we are seeing a shift in Maine especially in the urban areas. (Quit laughing, you folk farther south and west. We have urban areas here)

I moved to Maine in 2002, I never meant to stay here this long but life happens and I will be here for the foreseeable future. Which means that for better or worse, Maine is home and sometimes home is a messy place that requires elbow grease to get it right. And for me, writing and speaking up and out on racism here is my contribution to help make the place feel more homey for all.  Maine has her imperfections but I think an honest awareness of what one is facing can make a state like Maine feel like home. However, my best advice to anyone thinking of relocating anywhere is to spend time in the city/town that you want to move to. That is really the only way to get the feel of a place. So happy hunting!
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