Our Turn: HB 544 codifies a culture of silence

Published: 4/25/2021 8:00:06 AM

As freshman state senators, we feel compelled to express our strong opposition to HB 544. The language of HB 544 seeks to ban state agencies, K-12 schools, public colleges and universities, and state contractors from teaching certain “divisive concepts” like race and sex.

What this actually means is that discussions about systemic racism, gender inequality and other important aspects of our country’s history will be muzzled under the guise of neutrality and equality. But this is doublespeak. This bill perpetuates and codifies a culture of silence, inaction, unequal treatment and oppression and creates even more division in our state.

Seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the disproportionate health and economic impacts on people of color and women, we entered the Legislature with resolve and a deep commitment to address these inequities, in a uniquely New Hampshire way. We knew our fellow legislators would not always agree with us on how to achieve the goals of equality and inclusivity, however we remained stunned at the support HB 544 has received from Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate.

Although the bill was tabled in the House, it was later attached to the 2022-2023 biennial budget, now before the Senate. The chair of the House Finance Committee has publicly stated how important the inclusion of HB 544 is to maintain House support for the budget. Unfortunately, HB 544 and the advocacy around the bill are a direct result of what is happening in our country — a reactive, dangerous and fragile backlash to preserve “a traditional way of life” from those who have historically benefited from inequity and systemic racism.

This bill has no place in New Hampshire, where we have always prided ourselves in not allowing divisive national discourse to take hold. Frankly, HB 544 is also unconstitutional and fiscally irresponsible. This legislation is the close model of an executive order from former President Trump that was struck down in federal court for constitutional violations. There is no question that if this bill becomes law, it will be subject to court challenges, resulting in costly litigation and attorneys fees on the taxpayer’s dime.

Another significant impact this bill could have in New Hampshire is to limit implementation of the unanimous recommendations made by the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency regarding annual training on implicit bias and cultural responsiveness, ethics and de-escalation for all New Hampshire law enforcement. These recommendations, developed by a diverse group of stakeholders which we are proud to support, should not be hindered by oppressive legislation.

If passed, the regressive language of HB 544 would also drive away businesses, employees, young people and a diverse population from New Hampshire with disingenuous rhetoric of “unity.” Denying the existence of injustice, discrimination, and systemic racism, and ignoring the real life experiences of Granite Staters, will not unite us, it will only contribute to further division and slow our progress as a state.

Recently, the New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility and some of our largest employers sent a letter sharing their strong and united opposition to HB 544. In the employers’ letter, they shared that “the success of New Hampshire businesses depends on the ability to attract diverse generational, gender and racial employee groups at all levels within our organizations” and that HB 544 “will have a chilling impact on our workplaces and on the business climate in New Hampshire.”

The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, with over 400 member businesses, has also announced its opposition to the bill, saying that passage of the bill “would be a black eye for New Hampshire.” HB 544 represents an unwillingness to have difficult conversations and move towards true equity for all Granite Staters.

Is this the message we want to send to people of color and women in our state? Is this the message we want to send as the eyes of the nation that assess New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary status? Is this the message we want to send to our students as we prepare them to compete in a modern world? Is this the message we want to send to the young people who we are desperately trying to attract and retain in this state to solve our mounting workforce shortage?

Because this issue will be a decisive one throughout the budget process, we encourage everyone to contact their elected officials and ask that they strongly oppose the language of HB 544 so we can refocus our attention towards building an equitable, modern and future-focused state and economy.

(Sen. Sue Prentiss represents Senate District 5 and lives in Lebanon, Sen. Becky Whitley represents Senate District 15 and lives in Hopkinton. Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka represents Senate District 21 and lives in Portsmouth.)

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