With special thanks to Nathan Kempthorne
As we survey the landscape of civil rights in Maine’s public schools and publicly funded “private schools,” it is evident that the state falls desperately short in providing appropriate protections for some of its most vulnerable residents. The absence of meaningful, adequate measures to safeguard the rights of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ, and immigrant students represents an appalling, willing negligence of state leadership, with results that span across generations and communities.
The lack of follow-through in civil rights safeguards for Maine’s most vulnerable populations is rooted in an inherent structural imbalance within the state. As reported by the Maine Beacon, the governing body of Maine is almost exclusively business owners and wealthy citizens who ignore the pressing issues of poverty and discrimination plaguing the working class of Maine – especially the younger generations.
The grim economic reality of Maine, as outlined by Maine Equal Justice, paints a deeply worrying picture: approximately 70,000 Mainers live in “deep” or “extreme” poverty. Beyond that, an estimated 35,000 children – amounting to 14 percent of Maine’s children – live in households with average incomes under $12,000 annually. This poverty is particularly pronounced among the indigenous tribes and among Black families, evident in a staggering 40% and 53% poverty rates, respectively.
Dishearteningly, the Maine government has repeatedly shown itself to be more interested in maintaining these patterns of structural inequality than in breaking them down. A pointed example is seen in Maine’s lack of public defenders. Only after the threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2019 did Maine begrudgingly agree to hire them, becoming the very last state to do so. The state’s dubious solution? Hiring a meager five public defenders to serve the entirety of Maine’s population of over 1.3 million people.
Even more indicative of this fundamental disinterest in addressing these issues is the lack of investment in protections for human and civil rights in Maine. There are zero dedicated Civil Rights Prosecutors at the Attorney General’s office, zero Civil Rights Division employees at the AG’s office, and zero trained Civil Rights Investigators or Prosecutors. To add insult to injury, Maine also sorely lacks Civil Rights Officers within law enforcement agencies, further hampering any attempts to handle violations of civil and human rights.
Coupled with this lack of investment, the Maine Human Rights Act – intended to prohibit discrimination on grounds of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, genetic information, religion, ancestry, or national origin – appears to be woefully inadequate. Even LD-1420, recently implemented to protect student’s civil rights, has been blighted by discriminatory measures in a clear display of bureaucratic negligence or even deliberate hurdles.
The Maine Human Rights Commission should double its investigative team to 14 from its current 6, with an additional member budgeted as of July of this year. It should also immediately refrain from pushing folks whose rights have been violated to accept monetary relief outside of court, especially when it is tied to non-disparagement or non-disclosure agreements. The MHRC site states “The Commission strongly encourages both sides to settle a case informally before a decision is made as to whether or not discrimination has occurred…If a settlement is reached, the Commission will agree not to proceed with the case. Settlement discussions are confidential.” This process turns the MHRC into a state funded “catch and kill” system that is heavily weighted against survivors of discrimination.
Maine’s steadfast refusal to institute an effective civil rights infrastructure is directly harming the most vulnerable members of its communities. The socio-economic disparity tied to racial and cultural differences is deepening around us, and yet the state seems uninterested in the level of change needed to address this. This gross negligence extends beyond individuals to institutional levels: the Attorney General’s office, the government, and the legislature.
Perhaps the most illuminating example of the state’s priorities is found in the outcomes of judicial penalties: In Maine, poaching a moose warrants an immediate penalty – a mandatory three-day jail term, a Class D crime, a $1,000 fine, and confiscation of the poacher’s guns. Conversely, racially profiling or intimidating a person of color sees an alarmingly lesser punishment, if any, at all. It raises the serious question: does the state of Maine value the lives of its wildlife more than those of its BIPOC residents?
To conclude, the lethargic and insufficient handling of civil rights by the Maine government is utterly unacceptable, especially in a time when neo-Nazis openly march in our streets. It’s high time the state gets its act together and leverages its resources properly to offer comprehensive civil rights protections, particularly for school-going children who are the future of our state. The racial and cultural disparities that exist must be systematically dismantled, otherwise, Maine in the not-so-distant future may find itself the bastion of hate, discrimination, and inequality that white supremacists want it to be and which it has often historically been.