The biggest problem in Maine
Being a black person from Maine, I’m a member of a small group that shares a unique perspective on race in this state. That is why I consider it an enormous privilege to be able to write a column about race. My experience writing this column has shown me that most people who read it want to understand the complexities of the issue. That makes me happily hopeful, but I’ll tell you what: It also means it’s difficult for me to write about Paul LePage.
I’m a naturally hopeful person, but if you’ve ever seen one of the governor’s press conferences, then you know LePage can diminish hope faster than Wile E. Coyote can open a tiny umbrella.
Yet that’s not the only reason writing about him is hard. Another is that LePage should be a relic, but he isn’t. His world view comes from a time before the Internet, before television, before people who looked like me could sit in the seat of their choice on a bus, but somehow he exists in the present.
And he’s in charge, which leads me to another reason writing about him is tough: LePage is a symptom; he’s not the problem. Yes, he is a problem. He’s a big, loud, ugly, barely functioning, probably drunk problem. He’s just not the problem.
LePage was elected governor by the people of Maine. Twice. Yes, there were political factors that allowed this to happen, factors that don’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of the majority of the state’s citizens. But a lot of people voted for him. A lot of people like him and a lot of people are like him. That is a very serious problem.
One of the reasons black people were enslaved is because we’re black. The color of our skin made us easily identifiable, which made us easier to sell, easier to catch if we escaped, and easier to dehumanize. Once we were dehumanized, then we could be made to represent all that is evil in humanity. We could be seen as murderers. We could be seen as rapists. We could be seen as thieves. We could be seen not only as purveyors of addiction and disease, but as addiction and disease personified.
Any reasonable person can see these slavery-era, paranoid falsehoods for what they are. But I have been associated with all those things, just because of the color of my skin, and I’m only in my 30s. Luckily, I can also tell you this rarely happens, and the people who’ve associated me with those evils were obviously mentally unwell, and thus easily dismissed. They appear to be outliers — until I consider LePage.
Over the last couple of months, starting with his famous “D-Money” rant, LePage has established his belief that black people are responsible for Maine’s heroin epidemic. He has also implied that those very same black people are murderers of children, rapists and thieves.
More recently, the governor called asylum seekers “the biggest problem in our state.”
“I’ll explain that to you,” he said during an appearance in Freeport last month. “What happens is you get hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, the ‘ziki fly,’ all these other foreign type of diseases that find a way to our land.”
As was the case with his “D-Money” comments, LePage is not explicitly referring to black people, but his racist dog whistle can be heard loud and clear. In recent history, nearly all of those who’ve sought asylum in Maine have come from African countries. His illiterate reference to the non-existent “ziki fly” sounds like a cross between the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the tsetse fly, a pest whose range is limited to Africa. It’s widely believed that both HIV and AIDS originated in Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa is the area of the world most afflicted by that global pandemic.
In this mythical “asylum seeker,” LePage has created another dark-skinned villain from away who has come to destroy his great, white state. Like I said: disease personified.
The biggest problem in our state is poverty, and everyone knows it. Faced with a problem as deep and severe as poverty in Maine, the governor’s response is to amp up the racist and xenophobic rhetoric, to blame dark-skinned “outsiders” for what is clearly an internal issue.
Difficult as it is to write about LePage, as we get closer to the end of his term, I find it’s getting easier.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He lives in Portland and can be reached at email@example.com.