LePage’s racist remark broke the political code

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Photo credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Photo credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Last night Gov. LePage made an overtly racist comment about drug dealers from away getting young white women pregnant.

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’ve got to deal with down the road. [source]

By the way, if someone doesn’t think this is racist, they probably don’t think anything is racist.

This is as stark as it gets, using “white” as the explicit description of the “young girl[s]” impregnated by men with rap-sounding names (specifically, “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty.”

And it obviously draws from classic racist tropes of innocent white women who have been taken advantage of by sexualized black men.

It’s also terrible policy-wise, because it points to people from out of state as the source of our state’s drug problem. This must be why LePage is so focused on arresting people rather than treatment and prevention, an approach that Maine’s law enforcement community, among others, thinks makes no sense. Instead we need a multi-prong approach, with Medicaid expansion providing at least some of the additional resources.

Besides being rather appalling — and I think this is probably the worst thing LePage has ever said publicly — it’s striking how it broke the political code in how racism is evoked.

In our day and age, heck, for decades, racism by American political figures is implied and evoked more subtly.

You do it with images and with policies, like the ad by the Republican Governors Association for LePage regarding immigrants and welfare that showed shadowy figures. Another example was how, as recent study demonstrated, the 2008 anti-Obama campaign ads manipulated skin color so he looked darker than he is.

As the GOP strategist Lee Atwater infamously explained in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” [source]

The thing is, politicians aren’t supposed to say things like a guy with a rap name impregnated “a young white girl” like LePage did.

Of course, with LePage praising Donald Trump today, there’s clearly a market for this sort of racist commentary.

However, there is a reason why racism has been expressed nearly only in coded ways.

That sort of thing turns off swing voters, especially the suburban whites both parties need to win the electoral votes in places like Ohio.

Thus ultimately it’s very bad for Republicans’ national prospects as LePage’s comments get picked up by more and more national press outlets.

And it’s terrible for Maine’s image at a time we desperately need young people to stay here, to return to Maine, and to move to Maine.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.