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My Turn: The image of freedom

For the Monitor
Published: 7/11/2021 8:00:05 AM

Have you ever looked at the New Hampshire Legislature’s website? It’s difficult to comprehend how a senator or representative can possibly have time to gain complete knowledge and understanding of every listed bill that may come before them for a vote. Yet a cursory reading of a bill may fail to discover any concealed intention or any ambiguous meanings for an important word.

I’ve been told by a New Hampshire representative that few legislators have the financial means to hire aids to study each bill as U.S. legislators are able to do. Therefore, it may be necessary to rely upon trusted colleagues and experts to give opinions about possible amendments and votes. However, an interpretation or opinion is a choice that may mask or overlook the finer points of a bill. When legislators depend upon a synopsis they risk conjecture, trigger reactions, conflicting perceptions of meaning and assumed outcomes influencing their judgment.

A recent example is HB 2 section 69 that has passed both the house and senate and has been signed by Gov. Sununu. It seems that some legislators interpret this section as guaranteeing the right to freedom from all discrimination. They may miss or ignore the words, “certain types of discrimination.” In addition, they may not remember that these words are substitutes for an earlier draft that read, “certain divisive concepts.” “Certain types” may feel less pejorative than “divisive concepts,” however, the change does not clarify its meaning or intent.

What are acceptable types of discrimination? Is there an attempt to restrict conversation about systemic racism and white privilege? Without answers, citizens and politicians concede to concealed conjecture to support favorite personal interpretations.

The confusion does not end here. There is the insertion of the words, “a right to freedom from…” that distracts from seeking an accurate understanding of the bill. Who can possibly be against a right to freedom? And finally, section 69 was concealed inside the New Hampshire budget bill. Should the budget vote be at risk because of one small debatable section? And so, it seems, HB 2 section 69 became acceptable to the majority who were influenced by the image of freedom while abandoning clarity of meaning for another day.

The resigning ten members of the state’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion have recognized the dissonance and distractions within section 69 in HB 2. The Monitor reported they wrote to Gov. Sununu, “You signed into law a provision that aims to censor conversations essential to advancing equity and inclusion in our state… We are no longer able to serve (on the Council).” James Morse, Oyster River Cooperative School District Superintendent, added, “This budget language is designed to hide, obscure, and deny racism, prejudice, and discrimination of many kinds.”

New Hampshire is not alone. The New Hampshire legislators introduced a copy of the bill that has been submitted in at least 26 states. (That, by itself, challenges our independent New Hampshire spirit). Some states have passed it in its original form. It is an effort to silence conversations about certain concepts (types of thought) including critical race theory and its corollaries, systemic racism and white privilege.

The American Bar Association reports that the source of critical race theory is the legal community. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term critical race theory (CRT). “It is not a noun,” she explains, “it is a verb.” CRT is a practice of probing the role of race and racism in society. It emerged from the recognition that, while the law could be used to deepen racial inequality, it also held potential as a tool for emancipation and for securing racial equality.

According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality. Underlying foundational questions include: How does the law construct race? How has the law protected racism and upheld racial hierarchies? How does the law reproduce racial inequality? And how can the law be used to dismantle race, racism, and racial inequality?

These are questions designed to test the theory of the role of racism in the country. The questions seek to critique how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. A theory provides a framework for explaining observations. A theory is a group of linked ideas that can be tested to provide support for or challenge the theory. As in science, proven theories continue to be called “theories,” open to more research and the possibility that a new discovery will require modifying the theory. It is never finished.

Therefore, critical race theory or systemic race theory is a process, not a judgment, upon the way things are or upon the history of our country. It is a theory to be tested in the real world. Entering the process does not mean total agreement with the theory. It means to be willing to seek understanding of the theory and then examine the systems, culture, history and social constructs of the nation to identify differences or similarities with the theory. The process also includes collecting the lived experiences of people of color and preserving their stories.

The New Hampshire legislative vote to limit this process of gaining knowledge and understanding threatens conscientious inquiry for truth. It truncates the possibilities for a future of equality and equity in the nation. Legislators need to find a way to open the door that they have closed to honest, scientific, societal and legal inquiry. Introducing theories and testing them is the way we improve our lot as human beings.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)

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