Editorial: Learning can be uncomfortable

“In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1978 affirmative action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

Honest conversations about racial discrimination and disparities are always difficult and awkward. Because of our demographics here in Downeast Maine, it may be even more awkward for us than for most. Over 94 percent of Maine’s population is “non-Hispanic white,” as the census category has it.

But we need to get better, as has been stressed in recent meetings about civil discourse, at listening to different experiences and perspectives without impugning motives and without rushing to label or judge. We need to get better at “listening to understand” rather than resorting to “what-about”-ism and defensiveness.

A large group gathered Friday night at Mount Desert Island High School for “Tell me the truth,” a conversation about race with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debbie Irving. Students in the National Honor Society and Civil Rights Team helped organize and host the event, and introduce the speakers. They said the topic has been a fraught one at the school because while open racial animosity is not a problem, a significant faction in the community argues that it’s inappropriate or counterproductive to talk about race at all.

It’s true that the racial inequities that plague much of the country are not as bad here. Maine is one of only three states that does not arrest people of color at greater rates than their percentage in the population. And for white folks in struggling rural communities, talk about “white privilege” can ring awfully hollow.

But rather than playing Who’s Got the Rawest Deal of All, shouldn’t we take every opportunity to learn from each other and to learn from history?

No side in any debate should resort to bullying. But as Stewart-Bouley and Irving pointed out, we can’t avoid hard-to-hear messages if we hope to build healthy relationships and communities.

The Maine Department of Public Safety reported that half of the 40 hate crimes in the state in 2016 were racially motivated, and almost all of those were reported as involving anti-black bias. In recent years, Native American children in Maine were five times more likely than non-Natives to end up in foster care, according to the findings of a state commission.

The point is not to foster guilt. The point is to take responsibility for past and present missteps and to forge a way forward together.

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