Bob Neal: The Countryman: The census and Maine’s future

by Bob Neal | August 27, 2021

I don’t expect Maine to become majority-minority. Certainly not within the lifetime of anyone here now, even the newest baby. But I do expect Maine’s ethnic mixture will change. And I do believe Maine will be richer for the change.

Gov. Janet Mills told President Biden that Maine is “prepared to take in Afghans who are being evacuated from their home country,” the Sun Journal reported on Tuesday.

So far, the feds haven’t responded, and Mills hasn’t spelled out details other than that Catholic Charities would handle the resettlements.

Offering to accept refugees is a welcome gesture, and if they come both Maine and the Afghans who fled the Taliban will probably benefit. The 2020 Census shows we are still among the whitest state, though the proportion of Mainers of non-white descent is rising slowly. And we are among the oldest, perhaps having the highest median age.

As Maine moves into the future with the rest of the country, that may change. After all, the census found that the number of people calling themselves white actually fell from 2010 to 2020. And it has predicted that our country will be “majority-minority” by 2044.

Maine hasn’t always welcomed newcomers. Even white newcomers. The Ku Klux Klan had 150,000 members in 1925 in Maine. The state had 792,000 people that year, so if you figure that 80% were adults, nearly a quarter of all adults (633,000) were in the Klan.

The Maine Klan directed most of its venom at Catholics, who were getting off ships in Boston from Ireland and getting off trains down from Montreal. Catholics now are 21% of Maine’s population. Blessedly, the Klan lost members rapidly and disappeared soon.

The Klan wasn’t Maine’s only inhospitality. A couple of men have told me they moved here precisely because it is so white. A few years ago, I quit eating at a restaurant where a regular customer hollered out the N word during a diatribe shouted for all to hear.

When I was teaching at the University of Maine (1980-83) two of my advisees were minorities. Both felt isolated. One said he was the only African-American man on campus not on athletic scholarship. The other was Hispanic and felt so alone that he drove on weekends up to Aroostook County where a couple of Hispanic friends worked. The African-American student stuck it out for two years, then went back to Philadelphia. The Hispanic student moved the next year to a more hospitable state.

That should be balanced a bit. No other state was ever represented in the U.S. Senate by men with Jewish (Bill Cohen) and Arab (George Mitchell) roots. Edmund Muskie was Polish-American from Rumford, Joe Brennan Irish from Munjoy Hill. All may fit the category of boot-strappers, where I imagine lots of Afghans, if they come here, will fit.

After all, immigrants are more likely than the native-born to catch the entrepreneurial spirit. Every year, 52 immigrants per 100,000 population start new businesses, while only 31 per 100,000 native-born do so. That might be just what Maine needs.

Immigrants will also bring us a younger age profile as many of the refugees have young families. You probably saw that photo of an Afghan mother handing her baby to a GI to put onto a plane to America. If those young families come to a welcoming Maine, their kids may stay here and stem a bit of the all-too-familiar Maine brain drain to the lower 47. They might even lower our profile from an average of about 45 years of age.

A young man from Lewiston, born in Congo, worked on my farm. He spoke African French. Another worker, from Quebec, spoke something more like 16th century French. I spoke poor French. But we could communicate in French when the three of us worked together on the “necking bench.” My French might even have got a bit better.

In 81 years, I have lived as a minority in four settings. Three years at the edge of Harlem, where I could see the Apollo Theater from my window. More than four years in Montreal, an Anglophone on a French island in an English sea, as Quebecois call their province. Three years in Tennessee as a Yankee. Now, 41 years in Maine as a flatlander.

Of course, it’s not the same. I could easily return to the majority culture. But my life is richer for the experience. Sometimes, I even regret being away from the larger American culture. I notice the difference riding the train or at basketball games or art museums in the lower 47, where I see the rich mixture of colors, shapes and styles that is America.

Now, I don’t expect Maine to become majority-minority. Certainly not within the lifetime of anyone here now, even the newest baby. But I do expect Maine’s ethnic mixture will change. And I do believe Maine will be richer for the change.

Amy Vachon, women’s basketball coach at UMaine, even uses the ethnic makeup of her team as a lure when she recruits players. The current team has three Spaniards, a Dane, a Finn, a Quebecoise, a Luxembourger, an African-American (from Vermont), a Kansan, two Virginians, a Marylander, a Kansan, two New Hampshirites. Oh, yeah, a Mainer, too.

That diversity has added up to four years of winning basketball. And last year the Maine women had the highest grade-point average (3.9) of all women’s basketball teams in America. And that’s with seven players whose first language isn’t English. I can’t say the diversity made them all smarter, but it certainly didn’t make them dumber.

Bob Neal hopes that the diversity of the UMaine women’s basketball team becomes a template for the makeup of Maine in the future. He can be reached at turkeyfarm@myfairpoint.net.

Source: Bob Neal: The Countryman: The census and Maine’s future | Lewiston Sun Journal