THE FIRST adult book I ever read was “Kingsblood Royal” by Sinclair Lewis. It’s about a man named Neil Kingsblood who looked into his ancestry to find what he believed was his connection with royalty. Instead, he found he was descended from a Black fur trader. After revealing his discovery to his employer and his friends, their relationship with him gradually but significantly changed. He eventually lost his job, his friends, and finally his home — since he and his family had been living in a Whites-only neighborhood.
After reading this book at the age of fifteen, I knew that I wanted to be “one of the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers called those who were willing and able to lift up those in need. I felt responsible for doing so, inspired by the insight that my advantages as a middle class White kid would prevent me from ever facing the challenges of Neil Kingsblood. This insight is what HB 544 seeks to ban in schools.
The adage “if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” can help explain why so much of the local media and political interpretation of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is so off-kilter, to put it politely. If you’re convinced that anti-racist efforts by legal, educational, and other organizations are in themselves racist in motivation or effect, you will likely go after those presumed racists like a hammer on a nail. If you think those “racists” are, indeed, accusing you yourself of being racist, you might consider using a sledgehammer.
Governor Sununu himself, in fact, has recognized the “sledgehammer” effect and has come out against such a dangerous precedent in his cautions against HB 544.
As we know, former President Donald Trump had no such restraint and gave birth to the iteration of state legislation modeled after his September 2020 executive order that excluded from federal contracts any diversity or inclusion training that made use of “divisive concepts” such as those itemized in HB 544, with CRT training identified as akin to un-American propaganda.
Understandably, Trump was sensitive to being called a racist and in league with White supremacists, but he also wanted to tap into the anger of a great many loyalists who felt wrongly accused of being racist by, in their view, snobbish, hypocritical liberals. Aside from the fact that a federal judge has issued a nationwide injunction against enforcement of Trump’s order, partially on the grounds of the order’s vagueness on what speech is actually subject to penalty, the essence of the order lives on and seems to thrive on the confusion it has caused.
For instance, let’s consider an alternative to saying that “CRT is all about teaching children, and adults, that their ‘Whiteness’ is a bad thing and that White people are, by definition, racists,” as the Union Leader editorialized on April 24. Instead, let’s say that CRT is about engaging children and adults in looking beyond the work of what our society has generally considered “mainstream” or “traditional” in the curriculum to appreciate and empathize with the historically subjugated experiences, perceptions, and contributions of people of color.
As a matter of accuracy, CRT does not teach that White people are intrinsically racist; rather, that our educational and other institutions should consider how our customary modes of operation have embedded the often subtle forms of discrimination that have made life unlawfully and shamefully difficult for some people who have been socially defined as “other”: Black, Latino, Native American, Asian-American. With this understanding, the hope lies in creating more humanly responsible institutions.
But I am not defending Critical Race Theory to promote its use in schools in the form of discrete training packages, given all the unknowns about the quality of those trainings in and of themselves. I am, however, concerned that good-faith, inspired efforts of teachers to open the eyes of students to the worth of diverse experience and perspectives will be hamstrung out of confusion over what HB 544 allows them to do — given all the bill’s ambiguity and its clearly partisan-specific interpretations of what Critical Race Theory actually means. For those teachers guided more by their own professional sense than by the hobby horses of quixotic legislators, HB 544 would provide ever more fuel for cynicism.
Let’s oppose HB 544, but for the right reasons: not because it sets a dangerous precedent for canceling free speech in its well-intentioned efforts, but because it’s a dangerously ambiguous bill, grounded in misunderstanding and partisan ideology, that would seek to constrict students’ understanding of themselves and their responsibilities to our common humanity in a diverse world.