Maryland combats racism head-on with new laws

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The new laws seek to reduce racial disparities in maternal deaths and protect Black job applicants and employees from discrimination.

This week, three new Maryland state laws aimed at combating racism went into effect statewide.

The Maryland General Assembly passed the laws earlier this year, before the coronavirus pandemic cut the state's legislative session short. The laws went into effect Oct. 1 at the start of the new fiscal year.

The new legislation expands the definition of a hate crime and prohibits intimidating others with swastikas or nooses. Critically, the new law encompasses crimes that are "motivated either in whole or in part by" bias or hate.

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Under Maryland's previous hate crime law, prosecutors had to prove that hate was the sole motivation for a crime in order for an individual to be convicted of a hate crime.

"The law is now clear that symbols can be a method by which someone can commit a hate crime," Spencer Dove, a spokesperson for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, told the American Independent Foundation.

The new law is named after Richard Collins III, a 23-year-old Black man who was killed in 2017 at a bus stop in College Park, Maryland. Collins — who was set to graduate from Bowie State University that year and become a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army — was stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, a white man.

Urbanski was convicted of first-degree murder in 2019. The judge threw out a further hate crime charge, saying that prosecutors could not directly link Collins' murder to evidence of Urbanski's racist beliefs, including racist memes found on Urbanski's phone and his membership in a Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation."

Another new Maryland law will address the issue of maternal mortality among Black women. The new law will ensure that the composition of the Maternal Mortality Review Program, which focuses on racial disparities in maternal deaths, is consistent with the racial makeup of the demographic the issue affects most.

The Maternal Mortality Review Program reported in 2019 that between 2013 and 2017, Maryland's maternal mortality rate was higher than the national average. The maternal mortality rate of Black women in Maryland is four times higher than that of white women in the state.

This is partly because of economic and health care disparities, as well as the fact that disproportionately few medical providers are Black.

A third law that went into effect Oct. 1 bans discrimination against Black job applicants and employees who have natural hairstyles. The Crown Act expands the definition of racial discrimination to include protections for all traditionally Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks and braids. Delegate Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore) sponsored Maryland's version of the Crown Act, and other Black women lawmakers signed on in support of the law.

Smith said the law was "sadly necessary," since "research shows that Black workers face discrimination for wearing natural hairstyles."

Dove applauded the fact that employers are no longer able to discriminate against employees or applicants on the basis of their hairstyle, and said the MCCR is committed to supporting such efforts, which "promote and improve civil rights within Maryland."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.