America’s Whitest State Welcomes Black Immigrants (and Elects Them Too)

How Maine is a very unusual state, socially and politically.

I spent the summers after my Junior and Senior years in college working as a camp counselor in Maine (quite a feat for someone with no athletic ability and a very low tolerance for the outdoors).  Each summer, I decided to play a game in my head: I would keep a running count of the number of other black people I would see, anywhere, during the summer. I don’t think I ever got to 100 either year.  Maine is very white, is what I’m telling you.

By some counts, Maine is the whitest state in America (Vermont vies for the title as well, which might explain why Bernie Sanders’ outreach to black voters has been so hit or miss).  The reasons for this whiteness are twofold.  The first factor, for which we can’t really fault the state, is that Maine is very far north – many of us (African-Americans) simply didn’t make it up there as we left the south for literal freedom during the days of the Underground Railroad (although some of us did) or economic freedom during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.  Similarly, Maine is very far away from the southern border, limiting immigration from Latin America as well.

The second reason for Maine’s relative lack of melanin is not so benign.  The state actually became less diverse than it had been during several hostile periods of its history: during the Civil War, when war-related manufacturing shifts left many black Mainers without jobs and racist employers refused to hire them into new industries, and during the early 1900s, when a set of very racist policies and an influx of the Ku Klux Klan chased away many of the state’s black residents.

Maine’s politics towards minorities has not always been friendly even in recent years; we all remember when former Maine Governor Paul LePage complained that, well, let me just remind you:

These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty … these types of guys … they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

Oh, the good old days of early 2016, when we only had to worry about overt racism reaching as high as the governor’s mansion.  So, with all this context, what do you think happened when a recent influx of asylum-seekers arrived in the state’s biggest city, Portland, from countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, overwhelming the city’s shelter resources?  Did Portland respond by:

  1. Shuttling them out of the city while citing Donald Trump’s attempts to drastically cut refugee access to America.
  2. Yelling “Make America Great Again” until they left.
  3. Converting a minor-league stadium into a shelter to house the influx of immigrants and soliciting funds for providing longer-term support for them because that’s the right thing to do and because Maine, despite its general lack of diversity, has a long history of accepting African immigrants and refugees.
  4. I’ll stop making you guess: the answer was C.

You see, Maine has actually been a destination for immigrants and refugees from various African countries for some time.  I personally noticed that many of the black people I saw in the state during my summers there 15 years ago were of Somali origin.  Indeed, a large Somali community – currently about 10,000 strong – has become established in Maine since the 1990s and early 2000s, largely locate in cities such as Portland and Lewiston. This in turn attracted migrants and refugees from other hotspots such as Angola, Burundi and Rwanda.  Two days ago, one of Maine’s Somali immigrants became the first person from that community elected to state office in Maine, as 23 year old Democrat Safiya Khalid was elected to the Lewiston City Council.

Portland, meanwhile, is currently supporting its new refugee community through its Community Support Fund, a first-in-the-nation program that provides support for asylum seekers even prior to them receiving their official designation (the fund was established a few years ago over the objection of LePage; the current Governor, Democrat Janet Mills, has pledged to support Portland’s efforts). The Portland mayor has loudly stated that the city is more than happy to welcome even more immigrants and refugees into its community.  Former Governor LePage himself even adopted (maybe) a young man from Jamaica (a point he brought up, A LOT, to counter the very accurate accusations that he was racist) – please note that “one of my sons is black” is not a more-valid variation of the “some of my best friends” excuse.

Maine’s welcoming attitude isn’t just hospitality; it’s also self-interest. Maine is an aging state, and the arrival of generally young migrants may help revitalize cities like Portland and Lewiston.  There has, however, been backlash to the immigrant influx, as you might imagine.  Some feel that the sheer numbers of people coming into  Portland and Lewiston are too much, and there has been some “I’m not racist, but” responses among residents.  These reactions have not defined the state, however, as Khalid’s election demonstrates (it has been noted that much of the racist and Islamophobic abuse and threats she suffered on social media during her campaign came from out of state).

Maine’s politics in general mirror its somewhat divided and unusual social attitudes and character. Maine may be a white state, but it’s also a purple state. The 2016 election split Maine politically, in a quite literal way. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that allow their electoral votes to be divided between more than one candidate, and this hypothetical situation became a reality in 2016, as Maine ended up splitting its 4 electors, with 3 going for Hillary Clinton and 1 for Donald TrumpThe state has alternated between Republican, Democratic and Independent governors since the 1950s, and its two Senators are Susan Collins, an aisle-crossing Republican and Angus King, who is somehow a Democratic-caucusing Independent and not a Burger King special.

Before King, Maine’s other Senator was Olympia Snowe, another centrist Republican –indeed, for a period of time, ¾ of Maine’s Congressional Delegation were women. And the state’s elected officials are becoming more diverse: in addition to Khalid, several other African immigrants or children of African immigrants won various municipal elections on Tuesday. And a plan to reform Maine’s presidential primary voting system by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, instead of simply voting for their top choice, is likely to further Maine’s reputation as a political outlier in the country.  All-in-all, Maine continues to defy expectations politically and socially as well.

Oh, and the summer camps are quite nice, too.

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