As students who have benefitted from professors who have taught topics that others find difficult to address, we know that progress is not made through silence. It is made through rigorous debate and practical experience.
HB 544 is a bill that was introduced to the New Hampshire legislature on Jan. 12, 2021, around three months after former President Donald Trump signed a similar executive order during his term. The purpose of the bill is to remove Critical Race Theory (CRT) from any institution receiving grant money from the state. This bill was written with language that is intentionally confusing, discourages critical analysis of uncomfortable topics (like racism, sexism, classism, etc.), and restricts the free speech of state employees.
At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), we have many programs, events, and classes that encourage us to challenge each other on topics that are unfamiliar to us. Being able to question something deeply then engage thoughtfully with a speaker is key to integrating new knowledge into our own framework. It is not enough to know everything about a topic, but we must be able to respond to challenging questions about our beliefs. However, when it comes to topics like racism throughout the modern history of the United States, bills such as HB 544 work to shut down these conversations before they begin.
If we cannot be taught what the racism of popular ideals, theories, and actual events were in our history, we will be unable to learn the critical analysis that drives progression into the future. Critical Race Theory (CRT) does not teach fantasies about possible motivations behind slavery or discrimination of the past; it is the encouragement to find the institutional bias in our past and present that has driven the consequences we see in our recent history. Teaching CRT means teaching how Christopher Columbus was actually responsible for the decimation of the Native American people, rather than a curious explorer who learned to farm from a few nice folks. It means explaining the full history of racist ideals in our country and how people who were racist, in a time where it was the accepted norm, ran a system to reflect their own racist ideals.
There is an indescribable amount of evidence from the entirety of the history of the U.S., from its inception to the present, that is explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. To deny the right to discuss CRT as a leading theory is to deny factual evidence from recent history and psychological evidence happening at this current moment.
Delving deeper into the article, we as a group grappled with the restrictive writing. For example, one of the proposed Divisive Concepts stated in 10-C:1 section II a) is, “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;” which would censor discussions around people’s implicit biases. Also under 10-C:1, section IV further distracts from the importance of active involvement on the part of privileged groups in an effort to dismantle racist and sexist systems which are in place in the U.S.
While these are uncomfortable subjects for many, preventing discussion of these issues by restricting funding to public institutions looking to provide people opportunities to examine their own attitudes will only create deeper divides between privileged and oppressed groups. The phrasing of these particular passages also seems to limit communication about such topics to academic theory or impersonal discussion, excluding personal stories, which could be shared to raise consciousness surrounding peoples’ lived experiences.
While many of us in this organization may not have experienced the impacts of systemic racism, we can easily look back one or two generations to hear of it from the source. Ruby Bridges, the first Black girl to be integrated into the public school system, is still alive today at only 66 years old. She was harassed in public by adults for a decision she couldn’t even make herself and for the color of her skin. We are not divorced from the racism in America’s past; we are barely one generation away from the people who hurled insults and items alike at a little girl for being Black. Billie Holliday, a Black woman and a Grammy Awards winner, died from cirrhosis in 1959 after being relentlessly pursued by Harry Anslinger and the Federal Drug Administration. Even in our time at UNH, we experienced the “8% Rally”, where students demanded better treatment for the minority students on campus that make up only 8% of the student population. Again, we are not outside of the age of systemic racism in the United States, we still have people who can tell first-hand experience of segregation and the violence that accompanied that.
The goal of this bill, titled “Relative to the Propagation of Divisive Topics,” is clear: to remove diversity and inclusion training as a requirement for people holding contracts in New Hampshire. Among researchers included in an article by Sarah Brown for The Chronicle, there is disagreement about the effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, with one study finding that five or 10 years down the line colleges and universities that underwent DEI training programs did not show an increase in employed women and/or minority people, with one researcher citing that the training, particularly when mandatory, can emphasize people’s differences over their commonalities. Others, however, found that even where the training didn’t quantifiably help, it did no harm to the workplace.1
Frank Dobbin, a sociologist at Harvard University was quoted as saying, “Training can’t change stereotypes, [they] are built up over a lifetime.” Training, however, puts modern stereotypes into social and historical context, educating people on the implications that each entails.
Other studies included in the same article found that DEI education programs that included personal narratives were more effective than those which sought to be completely objective. Trainings which attempted to stay distanced gave off a sense of walking on eggshells around topics related to DEI, reinforcing the attitude that public discussion of these topics is stigmatized. These trainings certainly have room to improve in format and content, but censorship of these conversations would only perpetuate the issues which systematically oppress minority groups today. While we believe that DEI training should be actively improved, opening these topics for conversation allows more fruitful discussion between peers and colleagues while modeling better relationships for future generations.
The point is to expand and improve training and DEI training methods to best fit a wide range of audiences, not creating a social taboo around DEI subjects by banning the topic from receiving public or federal funding. Shutting down these conversations before they have a chance to begin does not stop them from happening and does not make the systemic racism and sexism in our country any less real. In the United States, we still have sundown towns, which are towns that terrorize and discriminate against Black people after dark. These are vestiges from an incredibly racist past that was built into our governmental systems. How can this be denied? It is documented and known as fact. To deny that fact is to deny recent history; when we begin to deny history, we are doomed to repeat it in the future. Along these same lines, we will not discontinue our conversations about race and sex because we are determined to move past the harmful actions of this country’s past. We want to progress continuously and the only way we see towards a more progressive future is to challenge ourselves and others with difficult conversations for the betterment of society.