James Parakilas

In a debate during the 2020 campaign, Sen. Susan Collins famously claimed that systemic racism isn’t a problem in Maine. For Mainers who have experienced it, her claim showed that she didn’t understand systemic racism, or how it works.

This year we’ll all see whether she recognizes how systemic racism undermines our democracy on a national level. We’ll know by her votes, and she can start by voting for H.R.51: Statehood for the District of Columbia.

The American citizens who reside in the District of Columbia cannot elect voting members of Congress and do not control their local government, laws, or taxes. Congressional Republicans today, like the Dixiecrats of an earlier period, have racist motives for denying them their rights as citizens. Washington D.C. is one of the most racially-diverse jurisdictions in America, with more Black residents than White. Republican opposition to statehood is partisan (D.C. voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic). It is also racist (Republicans feel they can get away with denying these Americans their rights as citizens because so many of them are Black).

Sen. Collins often speaks against partisanship, and she should support D.C. statehood because the only way to keep this issue from being partisan is to give these Americans the rights of full citizenship, no matter how they choose to vote.

Instead, Collins has endorsed a bill that would continue to deny statehood to the District. It would give the voters in the District a member of the House of Representatives (where one vote is unlikely to tip the balance of power from one party to the other) but no senators (where two votes very well might). This she describes as “consistent with the Constitution.”

That’s nonsense — partisan, racist nonsense. As she knows, the Constitution created a Congress representing the states (two senators and a proportional number of representatives for each state). She should support statehood for the District of Columbia.

She should also support H.R.1, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to protect the voting process in every state from systemic racism. Georgia’s new voting law shows the process needs protecting — it restricts voting access, especially in largely Black jurisdictions like Atlanta, and allows the legislature itself to supplant duly-elected election officials when the majority in the legislature doesn’t like how a given jurisdiction, like Atlanta, votes.

Sen. Collins has said she has no issues with that Georgia law, but if she is opposed to systemic racism, she needs to support the two federal bills that would prohibit such racist state laws.

In the time of the Civil War, Maine was a stalwart Republican anchor of the abolitionist cause. To this day Maine school children learn how the charge of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment on Little Round Top turned the tide of battle at Gettysburg, which turned the tide of the Civil War. Every town in Maine has its monument to those who died defending the Union and ending slavery — 9,000 Mainers in all.

Sen. Collins has to choose this year whether she will buck what the Republican Party has become today and fulfill the cause that those Mainers gave their lives for, or whether she will forever be known as the Strom Thurmond of Maine. In her years in the Senate she has worked tirelessly to produce benefits in the lives and livelihoods of Mainers, but she has never shown courage in the defense of America’s ideals. Now is her chance.

James Parakilas of Lewiston has been active in civic and political affairs in Maine for many years. He is a professor emeritus of music at Bates College.

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