My Turn: Continue learning from the past

For the Monitor
Published: 4/15/2021 9:00:08 AM

I urge the legislature to reject HB 544 because it would codify the demonstrably wrong notion that racism no longer exists and that historical racist practices have no continuing effect. HB 544 should also be rejected because it attempts to accomplish these purposes indirectly, using reasonable sounding language that is intended to prevent dissemination of opinions and explanations of facts that its supporters don’t like.

When I first heard about HB 544 I wondered what could be wrong with a law that prohibits teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” However, in his My Turn (Monitor, March 26th) Don Bolduc explained that the law was needed to prevent schools and state contractors from teaching “critical race theory,” a term that is not used in HB 544.

Critical race theory, according to one of its founders Kimberlé Crenshaw, is an “approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

Rep. Keith Ammon, one of the sponsors of the bill, was quoted in the Monitor as saying that he does not believe in systemic racism (a form of racism embedded in normal societal practices and laws that people might not even be aware of). He clarified this in a webinar where he said that HB 544 would not prohibit teaching objective facts, like the historical existence of slavery, but that it would prohibit teaching that the system helps one group of people oppress another. In other words, the past is in the past.

It would be nice if that were true, but the data shows otherwise, even in New Hampshire. For example, white people and Black people use drugs at about the same rate, but Black people are five times more likely to be arrested and jailed for drug related crimes than white people.

It’s also pretty clear that there is a wealth gap between white and Black families. A Brookings Institution study found that in 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was $171,000 while the average net worth of a Black family was only about 10% of that at $17,500. Similarly, the poverty rate for Native Americans in 2018 was 25% (possibly as high as 40% for Native Americans living on a reservation), as compared to 8% for white people.

Government policy has almost certainly contributed to these differences. Government policy relating to housing in the 1930s and under the GI Bill in 1940s made it more difficult for Black families to finance houses in desirable neighborhoods. Government agencies redlined Black neighborhoods where the Federal Housing Administration would not guarantee mortgages.

Likewise, in addition to government relocation of Native Americans to parcels of land that were often undesirable, the Dawes Act of 1887 distributed tribal land to individual families, thereby making it subject to local taxation. Many Native Americans had to sell some or all of their allotments in order to pay taxes. While these practices may have ended, their impact continues into the present as Black and Native American families were less able to transfer the increased value of their homes to their children.

Presumably, if the existence of slavery could be taught under HB 544, the law would also not prohibit teaching other historical facts, such as states that enacted “Black Codes” following reconstruction that included vagrancy laws to jail Black men, voter suppression and segregation, that many states (but not New Hampshire) passed laws that prohibited Black men from voting and prohibiting interracial marriage, that more 3,000 Black men were lynched, that a white mob destroyed the Black neighborhood of Tulsa, that another white mob overthrew the elected biracial government of Wilmington, N.C.

Similarly, I expect that HB 544 would allow teachers to inform their students that in 2021, after record numbers of Black voters helped elect democratic presidential and senate candidates, the state of Georgia passed a law that changed voting rules that made it more it difficult to vote, and specifically targeted voting behavior by the minority community. Would it be illegal under HB 544 for teachers to suggest that these actions were motivated by race?

HB 544 supporters also seem to believe that HB 544 is necessary to protect white people from being confronted with the advantages that they have had in our society, or the disadvantages or barriers that people of color have faced, because this might make white people feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”

I get it. I don’t think anyone is saying that many white people haven’t had hard lives or made it on their own. But this kind of diversity training made me realize that I’d never had to think about things like whether I’m going to feel safe and secure in the neighborhood where I live. I’ve never had to teach my children how to behave during a traffic stop so that they won’t get shot.

I’ve never been denied admittance, followed or harassed at a store because of my race. I can now see that Black people and other people of color often face these daily stresses in their lives, in addition to overt racism. While this can be uncomfortable, and I do think some approaches to making white people aware of their unconscious and unintentional participation in a culture and system that often supports white people are harsh, I don’t think it harms them to be aware of these things.

If the supporters of HB 544 want racism to be a thing of the past, we need to make that a reality. Legislating away the ability to be critical of governmental practices or people who engage in racist actions will not accomplish that purpose.

(Robert Moses lives in Concord.)

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