LACONIA — Perspectives on Critical Race Theory and training on diversity and inclusion differ greatly according to one’s political views, life experiences and race.
But one theme reverberates: public education needs to include the history of the racism and discrimination in America, the hard-won battles of various groups, and a discussion of bias and injustice that persists.
The New Hampshire Department of Justice, Department of Education and Human Rights Commission, in guidelines for school districts on how to abide by the state’s new anti-discrimination laws, said nothing prohibits schools from teaching about discrimination, or the “historical existence of ideas and topics including, but not limited to slavery, treatment of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws and segregation...” or the discussion of current events and movements such as Black Lives Matter and efforts to promote equality and inclusion.
The state’s new rules, included in HB2 passed by both houses of the legislature and signed into law in June, make it unlawful to teach that any group is inherently superior or inferior to another, or inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
“It’s important that we make our teachers aware of the guidelines and what it says,” said Laconia School Superintendent Steve Tucker. “I don’t see anything that would change at this point” in terms of practice or policies, Tucker said. "We have some general history classes, but none with specific focus" on Black history, he said. Concerned parents continue to have avenues to request that their children opt out of any subject matter they find objectionable.
It's now up to school districts to take up the gauntlet and provide comprehensive and targeted education on race, said James McKim, president of the Manchester, NH, branch of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Formed in New York City in 1909, partly in response to ongoing violence against African-Americans, it's the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization dedicated to promoting equal opportunities and rights.
McKim said the country won’t heal and move forward until unequal treatment between races is acknowledged and stopped, and history curricula must include the graphic truths about past and present racism. It’s impossible to solve a deep-seated social problem until you confront it head on and acknowledge its scope, he said.
“Teaching history is not to make us comfortable,” said McKim. “It’s to make us learn.”
McKim said some New Hampshire communities, including Goffstown, Keene, Concord, Peterborough and Epsom, have created reading lists in collaboration with libraries and school districts. Some churches, as well as the New Hampshire Library Association and the New Hampshire State Library also post recommended readings on race.
“I’m a firm believer of being hyper-local,” which means focusing on the history of people of color in towns around the state, including stories that make up New Hampshire’s Black History Trail, said McKim. His current favorite book for understanding race in America is “The Sum of Us,” by Heather McGee.
Some topics that need to be covered may be foreign or uncomfortable, such the idea of “White privilege,” said McKim.
Many Whites, including Lakes Region residents, object to that term because it implies that White people automatically enjoy benefits because of their skin color, when it’s consistent personal effort and hard work that determines one’s outcome in life, more than any ethnicity or race, they say.
But people of color who have experienced racism and exclusion, including Blacks, say that White privilege describes reality in a society where White people dominate, and laws, health care, education and even personal care products are designed with White people in mind.
It’s become a battleground of viewpoints.
“The discussion about Critical Race Theory is fraught with emotion and misinformation,” said McKim, who believes it’s become a politicized battle cry that "turns attention away from what is really going on. We don’t want to teach people that one race or one gender is better than another. We need to teach our kids true history. As parents we want to protect our kids. But in the long run, not teaching these concepts and information is worse than teaching them,” he said.
McKim said he believes "White privilege" is not a helpful or wholly accurate description, and should be replaced with “White normative,” to describe a society where the norm is what happens for White people. In America that translates to unequal incarceration rates for similar crimes, and unequal outcomes when it comes to contracting and surviving the coronavirus, said McKim. For instance, in New Hampshire, 90% of the population is White, yet only 74% of COVID-19 cases have been in White people, according to state public health data.
McKim said “White privilege” shows up in insignificant details that most people never observe or even think about, such as the shampoos that are automatically stocked in hotel rooms, which are designed to work for almost any hair type except for African-American hair. Those details, when added up, send a message and become brushstrokes in the tableau of daily experience, which differs according to race, he said.
“To fix disparities, we have to address those disparities in these races that are not being equally treated,” said McKim, who said he advocates affirmative action policies in education and employment. “People think that favoring people of color in a situation is going to take away from a White person. The idea of affirmative action is not to allow positions to be taken by less qualified candidates. It’s just that when two candidates are equally qualified, the person of color should get preference,” he said.
Many people, including conservative Whites and some Blacks, believe affirmative action results in quotas, and does not sufficiently reward effort or recognize merit, and creates unfairness in an attempt to correct injustice.
On one major point, most people of different races agree: No one wants any race to be seen as superior to another.
“CRT says there are normatives that are accorded based on skin color” which are important to be aware of and to address, said McKim. “Parents are right. We don’t want children to feel that because of the color of their skin, they should feel guilty for the way society operates today. The goal is for our children to understand how things really work, and they’ll be able to build this beloved country where people are treated equally.”