Column: Society is divided, but not by ‘divisive concepts’

For the Valley News
Published: 3/30/2021 10:10:17 PM
Modified: 3/30/2021 10:10:13 PM

New Hampshire bill HB 544 is moving out of committee toward a vote; it is also being folded into budget bills that would open a back door for its passage. If this bill passes, we might as well scrap the months of February and March from our school calendars.

February is Black History Month. March is Women’s History Month. March is also the month in which we reach “equal pay day.” That day symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn the same as men did in the previous year. With women earning 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, this year’s equal pay day fell on March 24. If HB 544 passes, schools may not be able to offer such basic information. What seems certain is that teachers will not be able to explain the meaning of these simple facts.

Let’s imagine an inquisitive student who hears about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. And let’s imagine that student asks a teacher what the bill means and why it is necessary. How would a teacher answer that question if HB 544 becomes law?

Since the law would prohibit the teacher from speaking to the student about systemic sexism, the student might wonder whether women are just not as good at working as their male colleagues. The teacher would have to think carefully how to respond, given that the proposed law would prohibit an educator from suggesting that “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist.” The student might infer from the bill that meritocracy or “traits” are not racist and not sexist and might conclude that, therefore, meritocracy and its “traits” are open to all races and all sexes. The student’s logical inference might very well be that the difference in pay reflects differences in merit.

If you cannot explain unequal pay based on systemic sexism, and if the law suggests that meritocracy is a race- and gender-blind reality for all, then the student might have to conclude that women do not deserve more than they are currently making.

(Would the student now be running afoul of the bill’s provision that prohibits any “form of race or sex stereotyping or any other form of race or sex scapegoating”?)

Now let’s imagine that our inquisitive student digs deeper, and finds out that Black women earn 63 cents, Latinas 55 cents, and Native American women 60 cents to every dollar earned by white men. The student might ask about these figures, but again, the teacher would be unable to answer such questions.

Systemic racism and sexism? Not something the teacher can talk about. Saying that meritocracy is skewed toward white men — also off the table.

The bill claims to prohibit “divisive concepts.” It is written in a manner that would leave children unable to receive truthful answers from their teachers about the divisions that exist in our society. Our society is not divided by “concepts.” It is divided by real-life issues such as pay gaps and the ongoing histories of sexism and racism that cause inequities to persist at this very moment.

The bill fails to understand the crucial difference between “divisive concepts” and the real-life divisions that mark our society. In doing so, it makes legitimate inquiry and honest dialogue impossible. Far from creating a sense of “unity,” the law prohibits our educators, state employees, contractors and, yes, our students from engaging in civil dialogue about historical legacies, social realities and future remedies.

If we are not able to talk about sexism and racism, and if we enshrine “meritocracy” as something that is equally accessible to all, then what are we left with? It seems the only answers that would be permissible under this bill would look down upon those with lower incomes, suggesting that they are simply lacking in merit.

Imagine a teacher being silenced and forced to witness a child default to such conclusions.

Now take this scenario and play around with the gender and the race of the teacher and the child: What if one or the other or both were female or male or white or non-white? No matter how you slice or dice this, no matter who is cast in which role, the only thing that is “uniting” about this scenario is that it is harmful — though not equally harmful — to all.

HB 544 is a badly written law, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is a disaster for our schools. It wrests local control from our school boards. And it is written in a way that will open the floodgates of litigation.

Colleen Boggs is a parent who lives in Hanover.

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