N.H. lawmakers debate banning schools from teaching about systemic racism and sexism

  • New Hampshire state representatives hear testimony on HB 544, a bill that would prevent educators from teaching about systemic racism in public schools on Feb. 18, 2021. —Courtesy photo

  • The Black Lives Matter demonstrators take a knee in front of the Concord Police station on their way to the State House during their rally on Saturday afternoon, June 6, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/18/2021 5:02:09 PM

New Hampshire lawmakers are debating a bill that would prevent educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state-funded programs. 

HB 544, titled an act “relative to the propagation of divisive topics,” seeks to limit public schools, organizations or state contractors from discussing topics related to racism and sexism, and would specifically ban teaching that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. is racist or sexist. Lawmakers discussed the bill in a hearing of the Executive Departments and Administration Committee that began Feb. 11 and continued Thursday.

“This puts guidelines on what are the limits, especially under the auspices of the state apparatus, what are the limits in presuming that someone was born to be an oppressor or someone was born to be oppressed because of their sex,” said Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican from New Boston, who introduced the bill. “If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity.”

Republican Reps. Glenn Cordelli of Tuftonboro and Jason Osborne of Auburn cosponsored the bill with Ammon. 

The bill is an echo of a federal executive order issued by President Donald Trump in November 2020 that restricted federal institutions from using curriculum about systemic racism, white privilege and other race and gender bias issues. President Joe Biden rescinded the order on Jan. 20.

According to the bill text, topics that would be banned include ideas that New Hampshire or the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that individuals are inherently oppressive due to their race or sex, that individuals should feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race or sex, that meritocracy and “hard work ethic” is inherently oppressive, and or any other form of race or sex “stereotyping” or “scapegoating.” The bill addresses race and sex, but not gender.

In the Feb. 11 hearing, Ammon said he does not believe in systemic racism, and likened people who conduct diversity and inclusion trainings to “snake oil salesmen.” Ammon says the idea for the bill came from a professor in the University System of New Hampshire, although Ammon said he wouldn’t disclose the identity of the professor, because the unnamed individual is afraid of losing his or her job for advocating in favor of the bill.

In the Thursday hearing, 26 people signed up to testify, including state representatives, and local and national advocates, who spoke for and against the bill. Much of the discussion hinged on the pros and cons of critical race theory, a framework that examines U.S. society and culture through a lens of race, law and power, and acknowledges systemic racism as part of American culture.

Many of those who spoke in favor of the bill called critical race theory “indoctrination,” and claimed teaching it in schools promotes reverse racism.

Some of those who spoke in opposition to the bill said banning topics from classrooms is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

“The First Amendment protects that difference of opinion, where the government, I don’t think, should have the power to tell individuals – and in this case, state contractors – how they should speak within their companies,” said Gilles Bissonette, legal director for ACLU New Hampshire.

Others in opposition said teaching about systemic racism is important to help students understand how history has impacted the present.

“As an immigrant, as a person of color, I see already discrimination against me in the workplace, when I go out, people think it is right to tell me I don’t belong in this country because of my accent, or my skin color,” said State Rep. Maria Perez of Milford. “Why do we need another bill to give people the right to discriminate against them, and why don’t we let the teachers teach the kids that we all come from different backgrounds?”

Tensions were high during the hearing. At one point the committee chair, Rep. Carol McGuire of Epsom, admonished Concord resident Melissa Bernardin, who called the legislation “backward-thinking” and “intolerant.”

“I don’t appreciate you stating your opinions as facts quite that firmly, and I hope you’ll be more respectful to those white people in the audience, many of whom are offended if they are called racist without knowledge or cause,” McGuire said.

Others expressed concern that the bill inhibits state contractors and others outside education from being able to do their jobs. Michael Padmore, director of advocacy at New Hampshire Medical Society, spoke against the bill, saying that banning this kind of training would inhibit the work of physicians at state-funded health centers, who take training in how to combat unconscious bias.

“Many of the country’s medical associates have recognized that racism is a public health crisis,” Padmore said. “COVID has shown us irrefutable difference in health outcomes in New Hampshire. We must be able to understand and address these differences, known as health disparities. Training physicians and other health providers to understand the implications of racism and sexism on health is imperative to the ability to care for patients and improve health outcomes.”

Concord School Board member Jonathan Weinberg testified against the bill, criticizing the supporters’ understanding of critical race theory.

“You need to actually understand the fundamentals of critical race theory, not just look at a Fox News article or two,” Weinberg said. “We need to learn about complete histories, and not only from a single lens.”

 If the bill passes committee, it will move to the House floor for a vote.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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