By Daniel E. Wathen and Leigh Ingalls Saufley – Special to the Portland Press Herald, September 10, 2020.
“We the people of Maine, in order to establish justice …”
Those are the first words of the preamble of the Maine Constitution. For those of us who have held on to the principle of justice for all as our guiding purpose, the inescapable evidence of racial injustice nationally, and sadly, in Maine is intolerable.
• Nationally, that injustice is painfully evident in the images of violence against Americans who are Black, brown and Native American – Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Rayshard Brook, George Floyd, Jacob Blake. The list is so much longer, and too many names on it are by now tragically familiar.
• In Maine, racial injustice is evident, not just in the disparity in the proportions of people of color in our prisons and jails, but also in the differences in access to basic human health care needs. The stark statistics of the horrifyingly disparate impact of the coronavirus on Black Mainers, who, at the start of the outbreak in May and June, were 20 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Mainers, make us an outlier even as compared to states with more publicly displayed racial violence.
• In Maine, racial injustice is evident in the total lack of people of color in leadership positions. There has never been a governor who was a Black, brown, or indigenous person. There has never been a chief justice, a Senate president, or a speaker of the House who identified as a member of the community of color.
Behind these stark truths are decades, now centuries, of disadvantage in education, early childcare, employment, health care, housing and criminal justice. Mainers of color and Wabanaki tribal members have been deprived of basic and critical opportunities, often with life-changing results.
We must act now to change this reality. It is not enough to say that we are not racists. Passivity in the face of injustice makes us complicit in that injustice. We must have the courage to act affirmatively. We must understand how our institutions, policies and “well-intentioned” actions have actually contributed to systemic racism. We must, as Ibram Kendi says, become anti-racists.
To this end, the Maine Justice Foundation has launched the Racial Justice Fund, a $260,000 initiative to fund programs that will further racial justice and equity. Twenty-one leading Maine companies, along with the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, have generously come forward to fund this important effort. It is a meaningful start, and we applaud the active efforts to address the injustices now.
Both of us have served as chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In that capacity, we oversaw the Maine Justice Foundation’s administration of funds for low-income Mainers who could not afford a lawyer. The Racial Justice Fund broadens that mission to ensure that justice is not denied to any Mainer based on race or ethnicity. We are proud to lend our voices to the foundation’s effort to further racial justice.
We hope others will join the foundation on this positive path toward equal justice and liberty for all people of color and the Wabanaki people in our communities by supporting the fund. The fund will support projects that address systemic racism and inequality inside and outside the legal system. An advisory committee of lawyers, academics and public officials, including Black, brown, and indigenous Mainers, will guide the fund’s specific priorities.
Maine can and must lead the way to “establish justice” – justice that exists for everyone without regarding to skin color, race or ethnicity – in our institutions, our communities and our future. We must never forget Martin Luther King’s reminder that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”