| Laura Fralich |
New Gloucester Selectman George Colby’s comment at the December 3rd select board meeting has recently raised the question of what it means to be racist and what qualifies as a racist comment. There is often a misleading and false rhetoric that in order to be racist, someone has to explicitly espouse racist views, slurs, or comments. This narrative leads to the mentality that we can easily categorize people, comments, or ideas as racist or not racist. This oversimplification of racism gives a false sense of self-assurance and moral high ground to anyone who does not explicitly promote views of racial superiority or use racial slurs. However, the racial grievance mentality of George Colby’s comments are deeply harmful in that they disregard the centuries of racial violence and racist policies as well as the realities of the current racial inequities in wealth, housing, education, criminal justice, and health. George Colby’s comment after the Pledge of Allegiance, “…liberty and justice for all. Everyone. Even us white folks!” paints a picture of a town and a society where white people are the victims, where white people do not have equal access to liberty and justice compared to other races, and where white people have been discriminated against and disadvantaged. This is a categorically false idea that directly harms people of color in our town, our state, and our nation who are dealing with racial injustice on a daily basis.
While it can be easy to dismiss ideas of racial inequality in Maine, the whitest state in the nation, the stark realities of people of color in Maine paint a similar picture as in other states. According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, Mainers of color are twice as likely as white Mainers to experience poverty and unemployment; black students are 2.4 times more likely to be suspended than white students; people of color are twice as likely to not be able to afford to see a doctor; Black Mainers are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white Mainers and four times as likely to be arrested. In addition, Maine has the highest racial disparity in COVID-19 cases in the nation with Black Mainers 20 times more likely to contract the virus than white Mainers. These present-day statistics have deep roots in racist policies throughout Maine’s history- from the genocide of Wabanaki people in Maine, to the forced removal and institutionalization of residents of Malaga Island, to the systematic discrimination in housing, employment, and medical care.
This is not to dismiss the economic hardship and generational poverty experience by many Maine and New Gloucester residents of all races. Mainers have been hard hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus with rising rates of unemployment, food insecurity, and housing insecurity. Before the pandemic, Maine already had the highest rate of food insecurity in New England and high rates of poverty for seniors and children, and these numbers are higher for black and indigenous populations in Maine. To acknowledge the needs and struggles of people of color in Maine is not to dismiss the concerns of white Mainers. Addressing issues of food security, employment, health and housing benefits all Mainers. However, specific attention needs to be paid to how these programs are enacted so as to not repeat racist policies of the past and to recognize the disparities that exist today.
To advance the white grievance mentality blatantly disregards the deep history and current reality of racism in America and Maine. It is a tool that has been used by white supremacists across the country to justify racist policies such as housing segregation and anti-immigration laws. In a society where racism is often narrowly and incorrectly defined by racial slurs and overt racial hatred, the white grievance mentality and comments like “even us white folks” are used as a more socially acceptable mask for a deeper explicitly racist worldview. George Colby’s own racist beliefs are revealed in an email he sent to a selectboard member ten years ago containing a deeply disturbing “joke” about President Obama that used the N-word and made reference to the brutal practice of lynching. His email reveals in no uncertain terms the deeply held racist ideas that his more recent comments allude to. While some have argued that he has a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, that right does not give him immunity to the consequences of his words and public repercussions based on his beliefs. As an elected official, it is his job to represent all residents of New Gloucester, not just ones that look like him. He has repeatedly shown that he does not understand or perhaps does not care about the harm of his comments and is actively disregarding the needs and interests of his constituents. For these reasons, he is not fit to serve as a member of the select board of New Gloucester and needs to be recalled.
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