CUMBERLAND — Town Councilor George Turner, who last week said a lack of diversity is in part responsible for Maine’s low crime rate, on Tuesday said his remarks should not be misconstrued as racist.
Others warned, however, that comments like Turner’s can “fan the flames” of discord, hate and misunderstanding.
Turner, who is white, spoke toward the end of the council’s Feb. 12 meeting about Cumberland Sgt. Thomas Burgess receiving the annual Humanitarian Award from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
“We really have a wonderful state, and a wonderful bunch of people,” Turner said. “And the police, we can be very proud of in this town, and I think in this state in general. The fact that we’re not as diverse as some other states may account a little bit for the less criminal activity, but I think part of it has to do with the culture of Maine, and I think we can be very proud.”
Turner in an interview Tuesday said that if he could do it again, he likely would not have stated things that way, “because the inevitable should have occurred to me, that somebody might misinterpret what I was saying.”
In an email Tuesday he also said, “I suggested that perhaps the lack of cultural diversity in Maine contributes to our lower crime rate. It seems to me the relative lack of cultural diversity along with sparse population for a geographically large state lends itself to less opportunity for outright violent discord.
“By contrast the denser populated areas of states, punctuated with large cities whose inhabitants often don’t identify much beyond their neighborhood, are more prone to clash. Such is my opinion; race and ethnicity have nothing to do with it.”
Cumberland’s population of 7,211, according to the 2010 census, is 97.2 percent white, followed by 0.8 percent Asian, 0.5 percent black, 0.3 some other race, and 0.2 percent American Indian. Of Maine’s total 1.3 million population, 95.2 percent is white, 1.6 percent of two or more races, 1.2 percent black, and 1 percent Asian.
U.S. News and World Report said Maine had the nation’s second lowest rate of violent crimes in 2015 and the ninth lowest rate of property crime.
“You can look at homogeneity in various ways,” Turner said during Tuesday’s interview. “And I don’t think it’s controvertible that in some of these big cities and the conditions that people live under, there’s a certain clash of cultures at times that probably contributes to some extent, and we don’t have as much of that here; that’s all I meant.”
Those conflicts arise more than they occur “with people that’ve been used to each other forever,” Turner added.
He said his comments did not refer to race, and that he is “anything but” racist. “But I think that different cultures, being unused to each other, at least early on, can cause problems,” he added.
Councilor Shirley Storey-King on Tuesday said “George is a well-meaning person, (but) I think he misspoke.”
“We all need to have a heightened awareness of the language that we use; we absolutely do,” she noted. “… Our whole society is hyper-focused on our words, and we do need to be careful with the words we choose.”
Rachel Healy, director of communications and public education for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said “immigrants are under constant attack in this country and remarks like (Turner’s) only fan the flames.
“Instead of blaming diversity for society’s problems,” Healy said in a prepared statement, “elected officials should set their sights on the real problems that they are failing to address – poverty, underemployment and a lack of access to health care.”