Like the U.S. Constitution, the Maine Constitution promises that we are all equal under the law, regardless of our race, religion or tribal identity.

But it’s obvious that this promise has not been honored.

Undeniable racial disparities exist in education, housing, income, health care and criminal justice. Laws and government programs that aim to be race-neutral can make the disparities worse.

What’s at work is a system of racial advantage and handicap that is built into our institutions, and often perpetuated by well-intentioned people who honestly believe that they hold no hatred in their hearts.

Mainers who are alive today did not build this system, but we have an obligation fix it if we want to live up to the state constitution’s promise. L.D. 2, An Act to Require the Inclusion of Racial Impact Statements in the Legislative Process, is a small step in that direction. The Legislature should pass this bill so future lawmakers will not be “color blind,” but do their work with their eyes wide open.

The bill, sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would mandate several steps toward introducing racial impact data into the legislative process.

If passed into law, the Legislative Council, made up of Democratic and Republican leaders from the House and Senate, would create a pilot program next year with several legislative committees. Those committees would review relevant data from state agencies and make findings on the racial impact that a proposed piece of legislation would be likely to have. After next year’s session, the Legislative Council would make a recommendation for the wider use of the process in the next Legislature.

Eventually, this process could prompt lawmakers to ask pertinent questions about the kind of impact their work could have on people’s lives and encourage state agencies to collect racial data.

The coronavirus pandemic offers a vivid example of decades of systemic racism in action.

The virus is not racist — it’s an equal opportunity threat to health and well being.

But there have been enormous racial disparities, with Black and brown people disproportionately becoming seriously ill and dying.

This has been attributed to a number of factors, which include the overrepresentation of minority communities in public-facing service sector jobs, living conditions caused by a shortage of affordable housing that disproportionately affects people of color, and chronic underlying health conditions that disproportionately affect people of color.

All of those factors can be traced to government policies that have resulted in minority communities in which members are less likely to go to college or borrow money to buy a house or start a business. Disparities in access to health care lead to disparities in health outcomes.

Some of these policies are decades old, but others are brand new. The COVID vaccine rollout plan is being revised because it is failing to reach African Americans, the people who are at the greatest risk of sickness and death.

It’s not a question of intentions; it’s a matter of results. In an individual case, a disparity may not be enough to prove a systemic problem. But when the trends involve millions of people over long periods across a range of policy areas, the evidence can’t be ignored.

Yes, systemic racism exists, even here in Maine. If we want to change that, identifying the racial impact of new laws is a good way to start.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.