Racism in America has been around for generations. Since the murder of George Floyd, a spotlight has again been shown on this grave fact. To undo hundreds of years of racial injustice, we first have to acknowledge that there are some structural issues that have to be addressed.

It’s sometimes hard to see the structural issues in Maine, with its relatively small non-white population and its history of producing heroes in the fight against racism. We can proudly and rightly look to Mainers like the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Civil War soldiers like Joshua Chamberlain and civil rights leaders like Gerald Talbot as role models who have fought to improve the problems resulting from racism in our country.

Still, it is a problem even here. For example, while three quarters of white Mainers own their own home, this is true for less than one in four Black Mainers. Mainers of color have unemployment and poverty rates that are twice those of white Mainers. And, in a chilling and timely example, data from the Maine CDC shows that Black Mainers are 20 times more likely to experience COVID-19 than white Mainers.

Over the summer, the Legislature began to look at this issue and it became clear that race had never been a considered when crafting most legislation in our state. As a result, there is no process in place to discuss or analyze the racial impact of our legislative actions.

To address this lack, the Legislature looked to the newly-formed Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. This body acts as an advisory arm for all branches of state government, and its mission is to examine racial disparities across all systems and to work at improving the status and outcomes for historically disadvantaged racial, Indigenous and tribal populations in Maine. A majority of the Permanent Commission’s membership is people of racial, Indigenous and tribal populations, and the Commission also includes representatives from sovereign tribal nations, policy and service organizations, labor, educational and faith-based institutions and people from impacted communities who all bring their experiences to the table.

Legislators came together with the Permanent Commission to see how we can ensure that our work moves us forward in addressing inequities in our state. This work was two-fold. First, it sought to look at the over 400 active bills before the Legislature to understand their impact on racial disparities. Second, it recommended issues that future Legislatures may wish to examine, and outlined a process to make sure that these issues are kept in mind as we write laws.

The final report from the Permanent Commissioner recommends 26 specific bills for the 129th Legislature to pass, and also notes 20 bills that could combat disparities with some additional work. But, perhaps most importantly, the final report makes recommendations for future Legislatures to adopt a process that changes how we legislate in the long term.

As policymakers, we cannot create and implement good policy without having everyone at the table. We must listen to experts, put ourselves in the shoes of others and acknowledge that the racism now being more widely exposed is a product of long-standing laws and policies that were designed to perpetuate inequality. As lawmakers, we have the ability to make sure our laws and policies set everyone up for success, and we are in the unique position to take the lead on making change.

I am proud of the work the Permanent Commission did, and I look forward to all the work that is ahead of us. While government can’t solve structural racism on its own, those of us serving in elected office can work towards racial justice and dismantle the racist elements ingrained in law and other areas of public policy.

Although we may not always see racial disparities at our doctor’s office or on the playground or in our communities, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. We must all strive to break down these barriers, and the Legislature must do its part to contribute to this process. By putting racial equity at the heart of our lawmaking, we can help to ensure that every Mainer has a fair and equal opportunity to benefit and prosper.

Rep. Shawn A. Babine is serving in his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, representing the coastal region of Scarborough. He serves on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Innovation Development Economic Activity and Commerce.

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