While open expression of racist or discriminatory sentiment in local elections isn’t rare, it is shocking to see it directed at candidates themselves. Ben Chin, political director of advocacy group Maine People’s Alliance* and Democratic mayoral candidate in Lewiston, Maine, made national headlines after he was targeted this weekend with racist signs attacking both his ethnicity and his left-leaning politics.
But despite this open display of racism—among others—facing the Asian-American community organizer, Chin is not deterred. In fact, he is galvanized by the “inherently messy process” of fostering racial solidarity in the small post-industrial New England city—one he says is actually more diverse than people realize. A day after sharing the story about the racist signs, we caught up with Chin to talk about electoral challenges in a small city, the incumbent mayor, the persistence of “yellow peril” racism and how he’s hoping to impact Lewiston’s future.
Maine People’s Alliance called for current Republican Mayor Robert Macdonald’s resignation over the comments he made about Lewiston’s Somali population in 2012. Now, as you run against him, there are these signs targeting you. Are such public demonstrations of racism commonplace in Lewiston or Maine electoral politics?
Chin: This kind of racial conflict is what Lewiston has in common with the rest of America. The white, working class was never really a part of the Obama coalition. In large part, I think that is because of a decades-long failure of corporate Democrats to speak directly about economic inequality. Lewiston is a blue-collar, mill town struggling to rebuild after industry left—just like most other cities in America. What makes us different, however, is that, because of our size, we are actually much more integrated than big cities. We have one high school, one post office, two major grocery stores. As we become more racially diverse, the misunderstandings between people are just more direct and in the open. In aggregate, a lot of metropolitan areas or states are more diverse than us. But even in so-called “diverse” cities and states, too often, on the local level, the school districts still separate out to 95% white on one side and 95% students of color on the other. These kind of attacks on people of color have unfortunately put Lewiston in the news quite a bit, but I actually think it’s a consequence of doing the real work of integration, an inherently messy process.
As an organizer and political candidate in a small city like Lewiston, do you feel that the challenges you face in confronting systemic issues are different than what’s faced in bigger cities?
Facing systemic challenges at a smaller scale makes it much easier to make progress. I can actually go out and knock on just about everyone’s door who is going to vote this year. That allows a consensus [to] build at a neighborhood level, absent the interference of giant corporations whose special interests might be threatened by a community coming together. One thing I hope Lewiston, and other cities like us, can contribute to America is showing how much can be accomplished when you don’t have to deal with partisan gridlock and armies of corporate lobbyists. Nothing will get done in Washington, D.C. for the foreseeable future. Democrats control the legislative process in less than ten states. That leaves cities as the field of battle. And if we can get some big things done in small cities, hopefully it will set precedents that will make it easier for people in big cities to get those changes to scale.
Do you think the run of attacks against you that allude to either your race or your sympathies (i.e. the Tumblr page from the Maine Republican Party, featuring an image of you superimposed over a photo of civil unrest) are part of a coordinated campaign?
I don’t know if these attacks are consciously coordinated, but the playbook they come from has been continually refined since Reconstruction. They don’t need a lot of coordination to be effective, unfortunately. The “yellow peril” stereotype has been around since the first big wave of Chinese workers came to America as the U.S. South and West searched for cheap labor after the elimination of slavery. The stereotypes around black people and public assistance that our Somali-American neighbors have to deal with started during the very first interventions the federal government made after the Civil War with freed slaves. These have being going on for so long, unfortunately, they don’t need to be coordinated for it all to sync up together.
You were quoted in various stories as trying to ”revitalize Lewiston and improve our city’s reputation.” What is that reputation now, and what would you like it changed to?
Well, unfortunately our reputation is having to deal with national coverage created by our mayors and governors that say outrageous things about poor people and people of color. Our work as a community needs to model for the rest of the country what living well together can really look like. Lewiston can show the country how people from all over the world can tackle big issues—like housing, climate change, the creation of good paying jobs—by just following that one simple rule: love thy neighbor.
*Full disclosure, Chin and the Maine People’s Alliance have participated in trainings with Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.