HB 544: Effort to shut down conversations on race and gender in government an abdication of responsibility

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

On Feb 11, Rep. Keith Ammon. R-Hillsborough, introduced HB 544 banning conversations about race and gender in government. This Bill has now been included in the budget bill. This is another volley in the generations-long effort by elites in this country to pit people against each other, maintain control and hoard the vast majority of wealth and resources.

We know for this country to live up to its promise of a multiracial democracy where Black, Brown and White communities can thrive together, we are going to have to talk together about racial justice, gender justice and what justice for all really means, in particular within government. Against the wishes of the majority of people in this country, some don’t want those conversations to happen.

The budget bill specifically names implicit bias training and racial equity training for government, as well as limiting sex identification of any person to biologically assigned sex. But the broad purpose of the bill was clearly stated when Rep. Ammon publicly denied that systemic racism exists and claimed that our country has rooted out “those last vestiges” already. Using very vague language, HB 544 and the budget amendment seek to deny reality, divide our communities and are a clear attack on the future people want to see in our nation. It is telling that Rep.Ammon has launched these public attacks the very week the country is reeling from the trial for the murder of George Floyd.

HB 544 and the budget bill amendment seek to reduce the vast challenge of systemic racism to individual problems where someone might be made to “feel bad.” This transparent effort to shut down important albeit difficult conversations in government is an abdication of responsibility. Government played a significant role in creating systemic racism and has a corresponding responsibility to dismantle it.

Indeed, government fingerprints are all over the systemic racism of today: from slavery, to Chinese exclusion laws, to segregation of Black people, to the Japanese internment, to deportations of American-born children of Mexican parents in the early 20th century, to the colonization of Puerto Rico, to racially-restricted housing covenants, to medical experimentation such as the Tuskeegee experiment on Black men, to redlining preventing Black and Brown people from owning homes, banning and criminalizing Muslims, to caging small children from Central America on the border, to the criminalization we still suffer today with the highest incarceration rates in the world for Black and Brown people. And it hurts almost all of us no matter what our race and background.

Government has created, enabled and/or facilitated systemic racism so broadly because we continue to define our democracy in practice through the lens of the 39 white men – 25 of whom were slave owners – who created our constitution. Those men simply did not see those of us who are not white or women fully as human beings equal in dignity and rights.

Yet, as James Baldwin noted, race is not biological or personal, it is political. Today his thoughts are echoed by critical race theorists like Michael Harriot who put in far blunter terms, “Race is just some shit white people made up.” Yet, it is painfully real in our everyday lives. Most societies are organized around values and ideas that scholars call “social constructs.” As Michael Harriot also notes, “it’s why Queen Elizabeth gets to live in a castle and why gold is more valuable than iron pyrite. Constitutions, laws, political parties, and even the value of currency are all real and they’re shit people made up.” To understand them we must understand why they were created, who benefits and who is burdened.

Just as James Baldwin and Micheal Harriot call on us to examine the made-up constructs that affect our lives, we must call on government to educate itself and organize its vast bureaucracy using a race/class lens to change the current political and economic system that benefits the few and prioritizes profits over people. Color-blind policies do not help us move to a healthy America. Understanding where racism came from and how it is hurting us all will help government move us to a healthier America.

This attempt to shut down conversations within the very entity producing the harm — government — by banning certain words is dangerous for NH and for racial and economic justice in a multiracial democracy. Its vital Granite Staters make their voices heard by calling or writing their representatives and demanding they vote against HB 544 and its copied language that was just introduced into the budget as an amendment recently. And while you reach out to your reps be sure to include your opposition to a similarly racist bill HB 266 punishing towns and cities for being inclusive toward immigrants by ensuring they are not being targeted or profiled.

Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Thoughtful prose on topics of general interest are welcome here. Send submissions to publisher@manchesterinklink.com, subject line: The Soapbox.

Asma Alhuni is NH Movement Politics Director for Rights & Democracy NH. She can be reached at asma@radnh.org

About this Author

Asma Elhuni

Asma Elhuni has been serving as the NH Movement Politics Director of Rights & Democracy since 2020 and helped build H.E.A.L. Together New Hampshire. She is transitioning into a national role with Race Forward to serve as the Lead Organizer on the H.E.A.L. Together (Honest Education, Action & Leadership) initiative. Join her for the national launch at 7PM EST on Wednesday, March 30, 2022: https://bit.ly/healtogether2022