Commentary: State shouldn’t silence conversation on race and gender equity

April 19, 2021 6:00 am
State House dome blocks out the sun

The House is set to vote on House Bill 1390 this week. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

We’ve seen it across the country, and now we’re seeing it here in New Hampshire: an attempt to silence important conversations about race and gender equity.

Nearly identical in language to an executive order issued by former president Donald Trump in September 2020, the language from House Bill 544 was passed this month as part of the New Hampshire House of Representatives’ state budget. It has no place in the Granite State.

HB 544’s language is dangerous and deeply disappointing to see in 2021. Specifically, it would ban state and local entities, as well as contractors, from providing employees with training on so-called “divisive concepts” related to race and gender.

But what this bill deems to be “divisive” are actually concepts diversity trainings use to educate individuals on the systemic barriers and discrimination people of color and other marginalized groups still face in this state and country today across our institutions – from our workplaces and schools to our criminal legal system.

Our state should be fostering conversations to address these very real, systemic issues in New Hampshire – not halting them entirely. This means acknowledging our history of systemic racism and sexism, and how that history continues to reveal itself in present day discrimination.

Talking about racism and sexism is not harmful to employees. Rather, many government and private employers host trainings on these issues precisely because they contribute to a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Banning these crucial conversations is a clear step backward in the fight for true equity.

The implications from this bill are far-reaching, and could be interpreted to prohibit current trainings that are supported by criminal legal reform advocates, law enforcement, the state Department of Justice, and Gov. Chris Sununu.

This includes recommendations from Gov. Sununu’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency to mandate annual training for police officers on implicit bias and cultural responsiveness. And, it could disallow the Department of Justice from conducting implicit bias training, which is currently required for attorneys, investigators, legal staff, and prosecutors.

It is critical that the public servants who have immense power over the fate and well-being of Granite Staters learn about implicit bias, how stereotypes affect behavior, and steps they can take to address the impact of implicit bias on their decision-making. Across the country, we have seen too many times the heartbreaking, tragic, and entirely preventable deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of such public servants. That is exactly why many New Hampshire law enforcement agencies want to train their ranks on implicit bias.

Aside from being bad policy, the portions of HB 544 passed by the House are also unconstitutional, and violate the First Amendment. In fact, a preliminary nationwide injunction was imposed on much of the executive order previously issued by President Donald Trump, on which this language is based.

This is because it unconstitutionally requires every single individual or company that enters into a state contract in the future to not provide these types of trainings for the duration of the contract – even on the contractor’s own time and dime. In other words, this bill attempts to allow the state to censor and regulate the thoughts of many businesses in New Hampshire.

It’s a blatant attempt to leverage the government’s financial resources to suppress the speech of businesses about race and gender. This is precisely why President Trump’s similar ban concerning contractors was preliminarily struck down by a federal court.

We cannot simply close our eyes, ban diversity training, and claim issues of systemic racial injustice have never existed. To do so diminishes the lived experiences of individuals in every corner of New Hampshire who have bravely shared their stories with friends, neighbors, and sometimes to the state and Legislature itself. In order for us to move forward as a state to address racism and sexism, we must not only acknowledge and believe those experiences but act on them.

Rather than engage with these conversations taking place in the Granite State and across the country, these concepts seek to silence all discussion and impose an alternate version of history – one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Bills like this showcase how much more work must be done in the fight for racial justice and to meaningfully begin to dismantle white supremacy. HB 544’s language doesn’t belong in law, and it doesn’t belong in New Hampshire.

We strongly urge the New Hampshire Senate to take this language out of the state budget when they soon negotiate their version of the budget bills.

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Devon Chaffee
Devon Chaffee

Devon Chaffee is the executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.