Why It's Important For The Maine Legislature To Consider Racial Disparities As It Passes Laws

Sep 15, 2020

The state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations is urging the passage of 26 bills as a way to ease racial disparities in the state.

Joby Thoyalil of Maine Equal Justice drafted the report issued by the commission yesterday, which outlines what could be done by the current Legislature – everything from increasing access to education and health care to criminal justice reform. He joined All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty to discuss the recommendations.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Joby Thoyalil
Credit Maine Equal Justice Partners

Flaherty: This report finds that discussions of race haven’t strongly influenced policy and laws passed by state legislature. What’s the consequence of this inattention?

Thoyalil: When lawmakers are not putting a racial equity lens to the policies that they’re making, they could be perpetuating disparities that already exist by not trying to address those disparities. So for example, there are well-documented health disparities based on race in Maine. There are reasons why people of color and communities of color have less access to health care or are not receiving the treatment they need. And if your policy isn’t trying to address those reasons, you’re not going to make any change to the disparities that exist.

Regardless of whether this Legislature returns for a special session, what issues do the next and future legislatures need to address if there’s going to be a push for racial equity in Maine?

One thing that was really lacking while looking at these bills from this past session is that we were assessing these bills for their impact on racial equity and it was clear that there are a lot of great bills that are trying to do good things, but they didn’t have racial disparities in mind when those bills were being crafted. And so that’s why we spend a good amount of the report giving what we call guiding principles to future legislators. And we’re making a pitch to them that they keep racial disparities as one of their many goals. They’re going to have a bill to address housing, a bill to address health care — think about the racial disparities that exist within housing, and that exist within health care, and try to work that into your bill.

Tell me a little bit more about this process. What are the things you’re hoping that people will be looking for?

If the Maine Legislature, the state of Maine, if Maine government is serious about addressing racial disparities, we think the most powerful way to do that would be to institutionalize the process of assessing the racial impact of every piece of legislation. And what that means is just asking the right questions. So if you have a piece of legislation, you can ask a series of questions, which is what we did for this process. And they included things like, would this bill have a positive or negative impact on the racial disparities related to health? And then you have to answer that question, you have to say why you think that’s the case. And then you have to provide data to support your argument. And when you do this, and you answer, let’s say, a set of 10 or 15 questions, whatever it ends up being, then you have on record an argument for why something would or would not reduce racial disparities.

For the set of changes that you’re hoping to make and for generally making racial equity more of a focus in lawmaking processes, how do you get buy-in from a legislator in say, northern or western Maine, whose constituents are predominantly white and who might feel that these issues are not really relevant to their district?

It’s not a zero-sum game. If we are reducing the disparities for people who are from historically marginalized communities based on their race or tribal status, we are making the state better for everyone. We are losing out on the human capital of some of the folks in these marginalized communities. You know, I think it’s part of the larger picture of poverty in Maine — as we reduce these disparities, as people get better access to housing, better access to health care, better access to well-paying jobs, we are decreasing poverty overall, we’re increasing the prosperity of the state overall. And we’re not hurting anyone by doing that. And in fact, we may be helping everyone by just lifting up our tax base, making state a more attractive place to other people who’d want to move here and also contribute to our tax base. And there are folks of color in northern Maine. There are folks of color in rural parts of Maine, throughout the state.

In terms of what you are looking to do here, what are the first steps that need to be taken right now to establish this path?

Leadership can encourage legislators to consider racial disparities. They can help them find resources to help them do that. And leadership can also help shepherd legislation to make it happen. Or perhaps it can happen through rule changes within how the Legislature works. Either way, I think the first step is whoever becomes our next set of legislative leaders that they help facilitate this process.