Commentary: Does systemic racism exist in New Hampshire?

Hands holding on to prison bars
Data from the New Hampshire Department of Safety show that African Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested as people of European descent and more than five times as likely to sit in county jail or state prison, where they lose their right to vote and opportunities for future employment. (Getty Images)

According to Republican leaders in Concord, systemic racism does not exist in New Hampshire and talk of it should be banned in our schools, state agencies, and private entities that contract with the state. Even Gov. Chris Sununu, who has pledged to veto the so-called “divisive concepts” language now in the state budget, recently denounced the term “systemic racism” as having “a lot of implicit biases in itself.” He added that he does not want to see it taught to New Hampshire students because “some of those ideas can get very controversial, very divisive within the schools themselves.”

We agree that talking about systemic racism in our schools, our workplaces, and even our families can get “divisive” fast. We’ve been trying to do just that for years in New Hampshire out of a sense of obligation to our kids. It is rarely fun or easy. Nor is eating kale or doing pushups.

But we respectfully disagree with the Republicans concerning the absence of systemic racism in New Hampshire. In fact, it is the omnipresent reality of systemic racism, as experienced by members of our family and community every day, that is the true source of division in our state. Sweeping it under the carpet by government edict will not make it go away.

If that sounds like a stretch, we understand. One of us, like Gov. Sununu and 97.3 percent of the other elected members of his party, is considered “white.” Growing up in a small New Hampshire town without any ethnic diversity to speak of, I (Dan) did not get to know a single one of the tens of thousands of people of color with whom I shared this state from the 1980s until 2001, when I left to serve in AmeriCorps. Frankly, I did not even know they called “lily white” New Hampshire home.

Instead, every peer I befriended and adult I admired – from teachers and coaches to principals and police – shared and cemented my “white” identity. My public school education tacitly, if inadvertently, reinforced the idea that “white is right” by what it taught and failed to teach, including the gaping omission of New Hampshire’s own centuries-long history of African enslavement and legal subjugation. As a result of my isolation from people of color, the very idea of systemic racism in New Hampshire never crossed my mind – until our two paths crossed and I invited my future wife, Sindiso, a human rights law professor from South Africa, to visit the Granite State.

When the topic of racism is raised in “polite society” there is a natural human tendency to focus disapprovingly on overt acts of bigotry by “backward” individuals, while clinging to a colorblind ideal. Yes, there are those “elements of racism” in New Hampshire to which the governor recently referred, as we were reminded just last week when Neo-Nazis painted racist graffiti near our home in downtown Nashua and threatened a Latino state representative. Like many other people of color in New Hampshire, I (Sindiso) have experienced my share of outright hate since arriving here in 2008, such as being called the N-word and told to “go back to where you come from” by angry men in public.

But instances such as these are simply not the point when it comes to systemic racism in New Hampshire. Worse, they often distract us from the point. Instead of a few “bad apples” spouting racist hate, what concerns us most are the myriad and interlocking systems of racial injustice that continue in our state to this day on account of “policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society [resulting in] unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race,” to take the dictionary definition. Crucially, the systemic racism of which we speak does not mean that everyone in our state is racist; it simply means our systems still produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of those operating within them. Think of it as “racism without racists,” to borrow from the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

But how do we know systemic racism exists in New Hampshire today? Let’s take four simple examples.

Education

Enshrined in our state constitution is the promise that every New Hampshire child will receive an “adequate” education. Although much progress has been made since the end of legal enslavement in New Hampshire in 1857, the promise of educational adequacy remains tenuous for children of color today. According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, spending per pupil in Manchester, where the majority of African American students reside, is just 74 cents for every dollar of per pupil spending statewide – a pattern seen in other communities with large numbers of students of color, and nationwide. This lack of funding is compounded by the fact that children of color are far more likely to experience homelessness, poverty, and accompanying toxic stress, which derails healthy development and robs children of the ability to learn. Fully 58 percent of students in Manchester are eligible for free or reduced lunches and over 900 students experience homelessness, both around twice the statewide rate.

Such inequities in school funding are reflected in student achievement scores, with just 22 percent and 32 percent of African American students in New Hampshire scoring “proficient” in math and English, respectively, compared to 49 percent and 57 percent of students of European descent. What’s more, students of color are two to five times as likely as their classmates of European descent to be suspended or expelled from school. Multiple studies find that, while rates of student misbehavior are consistent across racial groups, “Black students are punished more harshly and more often for subjective minor offenses.” Many who are suspended from school will have difficulty finding work and go on to spend time behind bars, in a well-worn path known as the “school to prison pipeline.”

Policing and prisons

Although officer-involved shootings are mercifully rare in New Hampshire, over-policing and prosecution of people of color, especially for petty offenses, are not. Data from the New Hampshire Department of Safety show that African Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested as people of European descent and more than five times as likely to sit in county jail or state prison, where they lose their right to vote and opportunities for future employment. Numerous academic studies from other New England states and beyond reinforce the New Hampshire findings that African Americans are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police even though people of European descent, when searched, are more often found to possess illegal contraband. The studies add a level of nuance not available in the New Hampshire data: racial disparities in traffic stops are most evident during the day, when police officers can better observe a potential offender’s skin tone.

Among juvenile offenders in New Hampshire, the racial disparity is even wider than adults and ranks 10 percent higher than the national disparity. According to New Hampshire’s Child Advocate, African American teens are fully six times as likely as the general population their age to be punished with delinquency findings and probation, while teen offenders of European descent are far more likely to be granted access to diversion programs and maintain a “clean” record. All this in spite of the fact that people of African and European descent are equally likely to use and sell illegal drugs, the leading cause of arrest and incarceration, and are genetically the same.

Health

Contrary to centuries worth of pseudo-science concerning human origins, which millions of Americans were taught in school, there is no such thing as race biologically speaking. Nonetheless, a growing body of medical research into the social determinants of health finds that racism (the progenitor of “race”) shortens the lives and harms the health of millions of Americans of color, in New Hampshire and around the nation. For decades, scientists have demonstrated that experiencing racial discrimination produces a raft of negative health effects, such as elevated blood pressure, hypertension, and early aging through a process known as weathering. In fact, the effect of racism on driving hypertension is on par with common “lifestyle” culprits like smoking, lack of exercise, and eating a high-fat diet.

In New Hampshire, African American infants are 43 percent more likely than those of European descent to have low birthweight and 33 percent more likely to die as children, including from preventable diseases linked to environmental racism like asthma (which are highest in communities of color and Coos County). These disparities are even more apparent when it comes to hospitalization and death from COVID-19, with African Americans 1.5 times more likely than people of European descent to contract the virus and 2.3 times more likely to die as a result when adjusting for age. According to the Governor’s COVID-19 Equity Response Team, this disparity is exacerbated by the fact that people of color, especially women, “are more likely to be considered ‘essential’ workers with higher risk of exposure.” It doesn’t help that African Americans are more than twice as likely as people of European descent to lack health insurance in New Hampshire, making them far less likely to receive basic care and more likely to be faced with preventable hospitable stays and costly procedures, the leading cause of bankruptcy.

Economic opportunity

Although we have treated the foregoing factors of policing and prisons, education, and health individually, they are, in fact, intertwined as manifestations of the complex phenomenon called systemic racism. Nowhere is their combined presence and compounding impact more keenly felt than in the economic domain, where the lack of good health or a high-quality education, or the presence of a criminal record, conspire to set people of color back from one generation to the next.

According to the latest available Census data, New Hampshire has the third highest racial pay gap of all 50 states at 61 percent, with the median worker of African descent earning just $24,500 annually or $15,564 less than the median worker of European descent. Although employment discrimination has not been studied in New Hampshire, national data clearly show that workers of color earn less than their colleagues of European descent with the same job and qualifications and are less likely to be promoted. In fact, simply having an African American-sounding name on your resume has been shown to cut your likelihood of being called back for a job in half.

Unequal pay naturally translates into unequal wealth, with African Americans in NH 71 percent less likely to own a home than people of European descent, a legacy of 20th-century federal housing discrimination and de facto residential segregation that continues to this day through restrictive zoning. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the rate of residential segregation in the Manchester-Nashua metro area rose from 28 to 38 percent between 1990 and 2017. People of color are also less than half as likely as those of European descent own a business in New Hampshire, another common means of building inter-generational wealth.

Not surprisingly, African Americans in New Hampshire experience poverty at a higher rate – one in five – than any other group. More than half of African Americans are either poor or near-poor, with household incomes below $50,000 per year. By contrast, Granite Staters of European descent experience poverty at one-third the rate of African Americans – 7.2 percent – and have median household incomes of $75,000 per year. These racial inequities are exacerbated by a highly regressive state and local tax system, with the poorest fifth of Granite Staters (disproportionately people of color) paying 9.1 percent of income in state and local taxes or three times the rate paid by the wealthiest one percent. Pulling the various strands together, a comprehensive new study by the financial firm WalletHub on racial equity and progress over time found that New Hampshire scored in the bottom 10 states.

Why is it so difficult for state leaders to see and accept these truths? Perhaps it is because just 15 people of color, out of a population of nearly 150,000, hold positions of power in Concord and most are in the minority. Indeed, Granite Staters of color comprise more than 10 percent of our state’s population yet hold just 3.75 percent of seats in the State House of Representatives and zero seats in the State Senate, Executive Council, and Supreme Court, not to mention the governor and his team. They are also less than half as likely as people of European descent to hold full-time state jobs.

Nevertheless, we believe a brighter future is possible for everyone in the Granite State. Even as Republican lawmakers are pushing through their “divisive concepts” ban, hundreds of businesses, nonprofits, and schools have declared their opposition to HB 544 and are doing the slow, hard work of uprooting systemic racism, the true source of division in our state. They do so not out of guilt but pragmatism, knowing that the harms described above visited on people of color actually degrade us all, at a cost of billions of dollars and countless lives across racial groups every year. What’s more, they see that a “solidarity dividend” awaits our whole society when we entrench our shared humanity in policy and practice. It’s time our Republican leaders followed suit.