The Danger of House Bill 544

The Danger of House Bill 544
Craig Gemmell

I awoke early this morning despite the sleep-inducing low barometer and the April snowstorm. I awoke with, of all things, a piece of legislation on my mind. 

Over the past months, a bill—House Bill 544 (HB 544)—has been working its way through the New Hampshire House of Representatives, along with myriad other pieces of legislation large and small, controversial and straightforward. But it has been HB 544 that has gotten me worried.

Take a read through it: Bill Text: NH HB544 | 2021 | Regular Session | Introduced

At 20,000 feet, HB 544 advocates for banning public schools, government, and government contractors from propagating 10 key “divisive concepts” about race and sex. I’ve read the legislation a number of times. At first some parts seem reasoned—the sponsors of the bill seek to subvert dialogue that creates a culture of blame and guilt and the “othering” that can ensue from such dialogue.

Yet I awoke early because I couldn’t stop musing on the contradictory nature of the bill. I agree that some of these concepts are, indeed, divisive and dangerous. For example, the first listed (IIa) divisive concept states: “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Banning this divisive concept effectively bans the teaching of white supremacy. However, as I dug into other divisive concepts, I grew confused. The fifth divisive concept named in the bill (IIe) reads: “Members of one race or sex cannot nor should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex.” The double-negative construction of this concept is problematic. As I wrestled with it, I realized that banning this “divisive concept” might effectively forbid acknowledgment of sex and race in interpersonal interactions. 

The sum of my reading of HB 455 left me perplexed; thus, I dug into the very limited public reporting of this issue. I came across a recent article in The Concord Monitor, which stated that one of the sponsors of the bill had announced at a hearing on February 11 that “he does not believe in systemic racism and likened people who conduct diversity and inclusion training to a ‘snake oil salesman.’ ”

One layer of confusion fell away: This legislator is likely seeking to silence discourse because he does not believe that certain problems exist and therefore dismisses diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners as charlatans because, in his mind, they peddle specious wares. I suspect the underlying motive for silencing genuine discourse about race and sex embedded in HB 455 grows from this person’s worldview and thus his reality. 

Here’s the rub for me. By virtue of where I live and my lived experience, I know he’s fundamentally wrong. I, of course, live in a wildly diverse school community serving boys and girls from around the world who are taught by a similarly diverse faculty. We are all different. Some kids come to us from near and far with the experience of having been systematically oppressed because of their race and gender—as have some of their parents. And the teacher in me is clear that everyone has stories, experiences, and individual realities that result. Our histories shape us. It is our work as a community to share those stories and to learn how to understand each other across differences. That work is one of the rich benefits of living and being educated in an environment such as ours. With such diversity in our midst, we can more easily understand that others have different lived experiences—of both privilege and oppression.

I believe all educators should be diversity and inclusion practitioners. As we do so, we must, of course, strive to operate with the greatest of care. Our students come from around the globe, from households both liberal and conservative. Our work is not to inculcate them into any particular belief system, but to help them become informed about the sweep of history, aware about the complexity of the present, and capable and comfortable of engaging in dialogue about difference—within a diverse community. Such work demands critical thinking and empathy—two skills essential for our students as they prepare themselves for lives of purpose.

I thus worry over HB 455 continuing to see the light of day and was troubled that it was approved in committee by a vote of 10-9 just a few days ago. I suspect that the sponsors of the bill would agree with me that we do not want to live in a world dominated entirely by a discourse of labeling and recrimination. However, nor can we grow as local community members and global citizens by ignoring our salient social and cultural realities. In these complicated days, I remain puzzled by so much, but hopeful that the citizens of New Hampshire can freely share their truths and engage in the necessary, courageous conversations that enable us to remain free and build empathy.

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