Whiteness not on trial in refugee story

Dec 02, 2016

Last week I wrote an article about a nursing home in Union that recently hired refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This hire made possible the first settlement of a modern refugee family in the Midcoast.

For context I included information on the assessment by state economists and others on Maine's labor shortage. Immigration attorney Jennifer Atkinson had presented some of this information during a Camden Conference talk at Rockport Opera House a week earlier.

Atkinson maintained that encouraging refugee settlement in the area could help address problems that stem from Maine's aging population and slow population growth, particularly the state's workforce shortage.

Chad Cloutier, one of the subjects in the refugee article and owner of the nursing home, took issue with including racial demographics in the story, saying the labor shortage is "not a race or culture issue — it’s purely a result or consequence of a service-focused economy and losing our young leaders to other states."

Cloutier wrote:

"It doesn’t appear that you challenged the attorney’s narrow world view that because Midcoast Maine is not diversified and is the “bastion of whiteness” we have a labor shortage. Multiculturalism doesn’t necessarily mean that in an area where there is multiculturalism you won’t have workforce shortages or, conversely, it doesn’t mean that multiculturalism creates an environment where there is no unemployment. There are many geographic examples to prove that point. I thought the article was borderline bigoted in the sense that the problem with the Midcoast is we are too “white.” Does that mean if the new family was from Ukraine (white) and fill jobs in the area we would still have a staff shortage because they are “white”? It is a nonsensical argument."

Atkinson's premises — that the median age of the white population in the U.S. is older and the growth rate slower than the median age and growth rate of the nation as a whole — are backed up by U.S. Census figures and a Pew study that found population growth among minorities accounted for 91.7 percent of the nation's 0.7 percent population growth rate.

From these premises she could say that by increasing the non-white population, Maine could increase its population growth rate and lower its median age, thereby helping to sustain the workforce in the long term.

Her statements, while perhaps strong in the view of some, are backed up by statistics. The fact that Lincoln is the state's whitest county at 96.9 percent, and Knox and Waldo are tied as second-whitest at 96.8 percent each, made it accurate for her to say, "We're a bastion of whiteness."

We all know that correlation is not causation, and that is why her statement: "Why are we so old? — We're so old because we're so white" was so amusing, at least to her Opera House audience, which laughed.

She did not explicitly say we have a labor shortage because we are white, at least not in those words. Rather, her suggestion to increase diversity was presented as a solution, and whiteness presented not as a cause but as a correlation.

Many besides Atkinson have pointed out the same correlations and their connection to a declining workforce, notably the Maine Chamber of Commerce in its 2016 report, "Maine's Labor Shortage: New Mainers and Diversity":

"Maine has understood the vital connection between its demographics, economy and quality of life for some time. We have also been aware of our state's demographic challenges: Ranking annually among the oldest and whitest in the nation, our total population is growing slowly, and declining in some areas, especially our rural regions. We are also well aware of the implications, many of which are being felt today — lower tax revenue, greater demands on services, smaller school populations, and a smaller, less dynamic workforce."

However, the chamber report goes further, holding that it is the lack of state consensus on diversity as a factor in the labor shortage that is a major obstacle to addressing the issue:

"Maine currently lacks a statewide consensus on the importance of our demographic challenge and how to address it and its impacts.... Developing a full understanding of the vital role of immigration and diversity in this effort is essential to our success."

Perhaps the aversion to including racial demographics in the discussion stems from a defensiveness of whiteness against criticisms against it. But neither Atkinson nor the Maine Chamber of Commerce expressed a judgment call that high median age and low growth rate were a failing on the part of white people.

It could also stem from the resurgence of white nationalism within a faction of the Republican party, Gov. Paul LePage's opting out of the federal refugee resettlement program, and President-elect Donald Trump's stating he will limit or pause the program. Perhaps Maine Republicans do not want to appear to be opposing them by advocating for refugee hires, except in terms of business strategy.

In other ways, Cloutier, Atkinson and the Maine Chamber of Commerce seem to be on the same page.

The chamber report recommends "increas[ing] understanding of the importance of attract[ing] ... immigrants as a key component of our overall economic development strategy." It also recommends that the business community highlight "the opportunity presented by expanding immigration and diversity," which is what Cloutier did by discussing with us the benefits of hiring refugees.

Cloutier went on to write in his email: "The business community can and should exchange ideas, think outside the box, for ways to combat the shortage."

Atkinson's idea was just that: a suggestion of one way to increase the working-age population in the state, and it was one that Cloutier ultimately employed.

Cloutier also felt the article should have placed more emphasis on the causes of Maine's inability to retain young people, which he believes are the state's "higher tax burden, high housing costs and lower wage scales."

The relationship between the three causes he brought up should continue to be investigated, but the article on the Congolese refugees, who now are productive members of the Maine workforce, was focused on one important solution.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Dec 04, 2016 10:46

The article was excellent and reaffirmed the need for more community interaction on these issues to break downs any walls there may be. When 180 people showed up for "Meet Your Muslim Neighbor",  at Rockland Congregational Church, it showed that people are interested.  The benefits are still appearing through discussions at beauty parlors, with friends and  neighbors.   WELCOME folks, we need you.


Posted by: Susan Bates | Dec 04, 2016 07:23

To add to the conversation, this address on the impact of immigrants on Maine's economic future by Hon. James Tierney is well worth the time. http://www.bates.edu/harward/events-opportunities/civic-forum-the-hon-james-tierney-immigration-in-maine-past-and-future/


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