Balint: Troubles within — Maine's governor plays the race card

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By Becca Balint

Maine Governor Paul LePage — who is reminiscent of former Minnesota Governor Jesse, "The Body," Ventura in his tendency to "let it all hang out" — dropped a lulu in a recent press conference last week. Commenting on Maine's heroin problem, LePage said about drug traffickers: "These are guys by the name DMoney, Smoothie, Shifty ... They come up here, they sell their heroin" and then "impregnate a young white girl before they leave."

Although LePage's handlers insisted to the Portland Press Herald that the "governor is not making comments about race" and that "race is irrelevant," that dubious rebuttal is beyond disingenuous. As David H. Graham points out in The Atlantic, LePage taps into a long ugly history of white politicians' fear-mongering tied to miscegenation.

It is also impossible to read LePage's comments without contextualizing them against the backdrop of the lynching of Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered in 1955 in Money, Miss., for allegedly "flirting" with a white woman. The subtext to LePage's remarks is the belief that white women need protection from black men and that Maine's troubles are caused by non-white reprobates.

In Graham's piece, he references a Washington Post article written by Philip Bump that recounts the ways in which LePage's speech was not only offensive but also inaccurate. Bump notes that on the very night that LePage made his remarks, the Maine DEA arrested three people for trafficking heroin: All three were white Mainers with ho-hum names like Donna and James.

When I talk to Vermonters whose lives and families have been devastated by the heroin trade, their families are invariably Caucasian and often they are middle class. This mirrors what Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy recently pointed out to LePage: "The consumers of drugs are located in every city, in every state, in every town in our country. And they're black and they're white and they're Hispanic and they're Asian and they're males and they're females.''

Regardless of race, heroin traffickers count on pockets of despair and an individual's dearth of hope and possibility. This vulnerability is income-blind, and dealers have made significant inroads to more affluent users. Raymond V. Tamas is the chief executive of an addiction treatment provider on Cape Cod. He told the Boston Globe last year, "A much greater number of folks who are addicted are now coming from middle, upper-middle socioeconomic brackets. We've seen this for some time now." Which is perhaps why there seems to be a much greater emphasis now on treatment and not incarceration.

It is not lost on advocates and activists within the African American community that when heroin and crack were devastating nonwhite Americans, the political will for treatment versus incarceration was notably absent. According to a criminal justice fact sheet published by the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

According to "Unlocking America," a 2007 report from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rate as white Americans, the prison and jail populations would be cut in half.

LePage plays to racial fears among his overwhelmingly white electorate. His veiled references to protecting white women from black men are indeed both ignorant and hackneyed. But they are highly, viscerally effective in some quarters because they are so simplistic: Our troubles come from outside and not from within.

Our failed policies and their horrible consequences should be the real source of both our fear and outrage. But that would require us all to look at ourselves. Are we willing to do that?

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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