Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she doesn’t believe systemic racism is an issue in her state during a debate Wednesday against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, drawing backlash from Black Lives Matter activists.
Collins was asked whether the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is controversial and if systemic racism is a problem in Maine, where 95% of people identify as white.
“I don’t think the phrase Black Lives Matter should be controversial,” Collins said. “And I think that we are very fortunate in the state of Maine because we have terrific members of law enforcement.”
“At the same time, it’s clear that in some parts of our country, there is systemic racism or problems in police departments,” she continued, adding: “Certainly, the horrific death of George Floyd should horrify all of us, and those responsible should be held accountable.”
Collins was then given an additional 30 seconds to answer the system racism portion of the question, but the Republican senator took just five seconds to respond: “I do not believe systemic racism is a problem in the state of Maine.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), in the final Maine Senate debate with Sara Gideon, is given 30 seconds to discuss whether systemic racism exists in her state.
Collins gives a five-second answer: "I do not believe systemic racism is a problem in the state of Maine." pic.twitter.com/UPnCAIuAHd
— The Recount (@therecount) October 29, 2020
Twitter users and anti-racism activists tore into Collins for her remarks, with some calling on her to issue a public apology.
“We do have systemic and institutional racism here,” said Hamdia Ahmed, an activist with Black Lives Matter Maine who delivered a closing statement on behalf of independent Lisa Savage during a Senate debate earlier this month.
“In the city of Portland, Black people are more likely to be arrested by police than any other race,” she told HuffPost. “We have people up north who literally have Confederate flags in their front yards. We definitely have white supremacists in the state of Maine.”
“For her to dismiss our concerns and our pain ― it’s just very disappointing,” said Ahmed, who is Black. “I think that Susan Collins should apologize to the Black community in Maine.”
Susan Rice, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the senator’s comments “out of touch” and “extraordinarily insensitive.” Rice, who is Black, publicly considered challenging Collins in 2020 but ultimately decided not to jump in the race.
“It shows that she really has not got her fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in her home state,” Rice told CNN on Thursday.
Collins’ campaign did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The four-term Republican is facing the toughest reelection campaign of her career this year, with recent polling showing her in a virtual tie with Gideon, Maine’s House speaker. Savage and fellow independent Max Linn are also vying for Collins’ seat.
Democrats see winning Collins’ seat as key to regaining control of the Senate. Though she’s won reelection handily in the past, Collins’ voting record ― including her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 ― has drawn outrage from liberal-minded Mainers in recent years.
Following Collins’ response during the debate Wednesday, Gideon stated definitively that systemic racism is, in fact, present in Maine.
“Black lives do matter, and the reason we have to say it is because there is a legacy of bigotry in this country that results in systemic racism,” Gideon told the moderator.
“It doesn’t matter how white our state is ― it still exists,” Gideon added, noting that the coronavirus disproportionately affects people of color in Maine.
“We see it in terms of access to education for people of color, access to health care, rates of poverty, rates of incarceration,” she said. “And we do have to do something about it.”
Gideon said Thursday that she was “quite startled” by Collins’ remarks.
“Systemic racism exists in this country, and it doesn’t really matter what the demographics are of your state,” she said during a campaign event in Brunswick, Maine. “We see it here as well.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.