Lewiston and the Somalis. Nice ring to it, eh? Maybe a quirky new Wes Anderson film involving a genteel English butler and refugees from a war-torn nation?
In reality, it's more of a messy slapstick.
When I landed in Maine a decade ago, Lewiston was in an uproar over the first wave of Somali immigrants to that city; tensions were not helped by then-mayor Laurier Raymond Jr. who, in an open letter to Somali residents, told them to rethink their relocation plans since too many Somalis in Lewiston would drain the resources of the good people of the city.
The friction and national media attention led a white supremacist group in 2003 to march in Lewiston. In response, some 4000 Mainers came out via the Many and One Coalition to counter-demonstrate those few dozen hateful souls and, one assumes, send a message to Mayor Raymond as well.
Since that time, Maine has endured a governor who lacks tact and, while none of us can really say for sure whether Governor Paul LePage is a misogynistic bigot, he most certainly knows how to behave like one. Everyone remembers him making light of "little beards" on women, telling the NAACP to kiss his butt, and vowing to tell President Barack Obama to "go to hell," right?
But you know, despite the tensions of the early 2000s, Lewiston seemed to be adjusting to its newcomers, many of whom have settled down and worked hard to become part of their new community, opening businesses, and getting involved. The types of things that are often expected — if not openly asked — of newcomers in any community.
Yet, inspired perhaps by his predecessor and our sitting governor, Lewiston's current mayor, Robert Macdonald, is yammering about how Somalis just aren't doing enough to fit in. This is a man who in September told the BBC that Somalis should "leave their culture at the door" and in a weekly Lewiston paper wrote a piece that said "submissive Somali women turn into obnoxious customers at the grocery store cash register."
Macdonald's comments feel like déjà vu, except that unlike the early 2000s, the economic leftover from the Great Recession makes Macdonald's comments even more divisive — it's easy when the chips are down to take an us-versus-them attitude instead of "we're all in this together." We still have too many Americans who believe, no matter how many times it's been addressed, that the current president is not a natural-born citizen. We don't need someone digging up and flinging large deposits of under-the-surface racism.
Macdonald's comments are also interesting considering that America is not a single culture, not even among whites when you consider regional differences. Not to mention socioeconomic variations: I mean, Mitt Romney's culture is "American" — but how many of us own dressage horses or even know what they are? If we think of America as a melting pot, that means everything simmers together and we incorporate new cultural traditions even as we share some of our longstanding ones with immigrants.
Even Macdonald's comment about Somali women is nonsensical. I've seen plenty of otherwise-quiet white American women being obnoxious at stores to vent what they apparently cannot express at home.