Race reflections: Two Maine black women say same old, same old

Shay Stewart-Bouley, 39, of Saco, was on her way to a board meeting Wednesday when she read about Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster’s comments about “unfamiliar” black people voting in rural towns.

“I was incensed,” she said, about the outgoing party chairman’s allegations that “dozens of black people,” who were unfamiliar to municipal officials, voted on Nov. 6. “The GOP is becoming increasingly disconnected from the world that we currently live in.”

On Thursday, Webster apologized. He also said he won’t mail thousands of postcards to the addresses of people who recently registered to vote. Previously, he had said he planned to send them, and if they came back as undeliverable by the post office, he would have proof of his accusations of voter fraud.

Unfortunately, Webster’s comments had already done damage. They caused people to question: If members of the GOP are concerned about attracting new people, why are they still focusing on perceived voter fraud when there is only evidence of a clean election system? There were virtually no complaints or concerns raised from municipal officials, according to the Office of the Secretary of State.

Stewart-Bouley keeps a blog called Black Girl in Maine and is a freelance writer for the Portland Phoenix. She is also the executive director of Biddeford’s Joyful Harvest Neighborhood Center, which serves families and youth with summer and afterschool programs.

Webster’s statements once again played into people’s unnamed fears, she said. She recalled Election Day, when two Somali women were challenged by a Republican poll watcher in Auburn. The poll watcher supposedly “just had a funny feeling about the women,” according to news accounts, but later withdrew his challenge.

“Racism exists everywhere. It’s just a fact of life. I choose, however, not to dwell on those things,” Stewart-Bouley said.

It’s time for the Republican Party to do “a heart check,” she said. The demographics both in Maine and the country are shifting. The party must find what issues matter to potential new Republican supporters and move in that direction. There are certainly conservative African-Americans, she said, but few want to align themselves with a party that seems out of touch.

Ruth DeGraphenried, 54, of Buxton, said her first reaction to Webster’s comments was, “There they go again.” Describing herself as light-skinned black, she said she was not surprised that the leader of Maine’s GOP said something offensive, but it’s an embarrassment for the state.

The face of Maine is changing, she said, and it appears that instead of it being a welcome shift, “it’s something people fear.” If the GOP is to become more welcoming, it must have a change of heart.

“That’s something that comes from within,” she said. “Pretending to be welcoming doesn’t fool anybody, and propping up a few people of color doesn’t do anything.”

Personally, she hasn’t had problems voting, and many white Mainers she knows were equally horrified about Webster’s comments. “I think my reaction to Charlie Webster was probably the same as my white friends’ reaction, and that’s a positive step in and of itself,” she said.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.