With change there is discomfort — those famous “growing pains” we often talk about. Teething. The terrible twos. The frightful fours. Much of adolescence.
When it comes to the gradually changing face of Maine’s racial landscape, I’m not sure what stage we're at right now. Probably past teething. Almost certainly short of adolescence. But we're definitely in some pain.
A flurry of events the last month has reminded me of that fact, starting with a brawl in Lewiston's Kennedy Park that ended with the death of a 38-year-old white man, Donald Giusti. Details are still unclear and under investigation, but it seems a number of middle- and high-school youth were involved and that many of them were Somali, which has led to an assumption that the person or persons directly responsible for Giusti's death were from that city's immigrant community.
It's led to a pretty vocal contingent of the Maine population using this as an excuse to paint the entire Somali immigrant community as filthy, ignorant savages. Some have also suggested retaliatory violence against the community in general.
Whether or not the melee was race-based or -motivated, there are perpetrators who need to face justice. But the entire Somali community is not to blame. When I wrote in this column last month of the still-unidentified Black man in Biddeford brutally beaten by two white men, I explained how that kind of racial attack springs from deeply rooted societal views against non-white people. I cited it as a point of reflection for white people, but I didn’t blame all white people for the attack, nor did I paint white people as irredeemable.
Because of the entrenched racism and disregard for Black and brown people’s humanity that is so deeply ingrained, I’m dismayed but not surprised that there may be angry Somali youths with anti-white attitudes in Lewiston. Having been in Maine now more than 15 years, I know that a sizable number of Lewiston residents, even some key members of city government, have been brazenly anti-Somali since immigrants arrived there.
Shortly after the Lewiston news came a Portland Press Herald article about the Maine Startup and Create Week, a business and entrepreneurship conference held annually in Portland. The article covered immigrant panelists speaking about how the unwillingness of Maine companies to hire them has forced them to form their own businesses in order to survive. The panelists discussed the numerous rejections of people who migrated here with impeccable credentials, excellent English skills, professional backgrounds and strong educations.
The state’s population has been aging and the crop of new employees shrinking for years — particularly in highly skilled sectors of the economy — and everyone knows that an influx of new blood, including immigrant workers, is necessary. But what's understood at the highest levels of government and business and executed at the line of human resources and staffing are two different things.
Maine has always had a certain disdain for those “from away,” a lot of it bound up in its status as a tourist economy. But this disdain is shown even more strongly when the new arrivals don’t fit into the very white racial landscape of the state. To many Mainers who are hard-core about tradition, “the way life should be” isn’t just about trying to cling to paper mills, textile work, fishing and farming — or even about uplifting Yankee ingenuity and nature in general. It's about keeping Maine white.
For them, the desire to not be “uncomfortable” hiring and working around Black and brown people trumps the necessity to keep the economy alive and kicking.
Also this month, race hitting uncomfortably close to home with my son and the rest of our small family here yet again becoming national news. My son, 26-year-old Rory Ferreira, went to Shaw's in Saco wanting to buy arborio rice and some other ingredients, including wine, to make risotto for dinner. When the clerk asked for his ID and then proceeded to ask for that of his wife’s too, my son — who has shopped at the store numerous times over the years and never encountered this — asked about the policy. When the clerk couldn’t answer the question sufficiently, he asked to speak to a manager. From Rory's account, the moment that manager arrived, she arrived with attitude and tension. That grew when he explained that he just wanted to be sure that, as a Black family, this was a real policy — and the manager took offense rather than simply answer the question. She was so incensed that as my son further tried to explain his concern, she took the groceries away and refused them service, despite them having complied with the ID request and having money in hand and groceries already rung up.
After they left the store empty-handed and confused, the manager called the police on my son, and the cops showed up at his house minutes later. It is hard not to see that racism played a role — from the manager’s reaction to my son, the store's decision to issue him a criminal trespass charge (which has since been rescinded), to the casual retaliatory use of police to enforce a policy determined by an instance of racial profiling.
So yes, Maine is still very white. While there is history here of numerous ethnic groups getting a cold shoulder and even violence all the way back to the beginning, most of those groups had pale skin. They were eventually deemed white after some generations had passed, and now they're considered Mainers. Increasingly, newcomers don’t fit that skin tone, and I fear that this state's ability to embrace them will be a far longer time coming.
Growing pains indeed — with the actual pain mostly going to those of us with dark skin.