Black couple that had police called on them at N.H. state office say subtle racism is “a daily occurrence”
Concord residents Barry and Magalie Lawrence figured a last-minute visit to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Headquarters to clear up a vaccination card error could turn out to be an unwanted hassle right before they planned to travel internationally.
What the Black couple didn’t anticipate is that a state worker would call the police on them after they became frustrated over a bureaucratic mix-up.
Although the state trooper who responded to the call didn’t arrest them and the Department of Health and Human Services staff were ultimately able to fix the problem, the Lawrences say the episode is an example of the racial bias they face in New Hampshire every day.
“This was one last straw just because of the nature of it,” Magalie Lawrence said. “It’s a daily occurrence with the little insults, the microaggressions. It’s something that happens everyday.”
Microaggressions are mundane, subtle and sometimes unintentional acts that demonstrate bias against marginalized groups, like people of color.
“You just don’t expect it from the people you pay your taxes to,” her husband Barry added.
On the afternoon of Feb. 22, the Lawrences visited the state offices at Hazen Drive in Concord, where staff from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Service and Department of Health and Human Services share a workspace behind a glass barrier.
The couple had discovered a problem in the state’s record of Magalie’s COVID-19 vaccination, which they wanted to correct before Barry, a pilot, flew them both to Bogota, Colombia for a South America trip. Trying to fix the issue with the vaccination card online had failed, and the Lawrences said the front area staff were unhelpful.
“The conversation became heated, no doubt,” Barry said. “They seemed quite dismissive.”
A Department of Environmental Services receptionist noticed the unhappy couple was “agitated in their verbal abuse of the staff,” according to department spokesman Jim Martin, and asked Department of Health and Human Services employees if police should be called.
“We trust in our staff’s judgment, if they need the police to come over to calm down the situation and not put staff in danger, then they have the ability to make that call,” Martin said. He said the DES was reviewing the incident to see if any policies needed to be updated.
DHHS spokesman Jake Leon wrote in an email to the Monitor that there is not a department-wide policy for when to call the police in DHHS buildings. Staff also receive training on diversity and inclusion.
“It’s important to note that DHHS staff did not call the police in this situation and that DHHS staff deescalated the situation,” Leon wrote.
A New Hampshire state trooper arrived just before 4 p.m. and spoke to the Lawrences, but did not arrest them. With the help of DHHS employees, they were ultimately able to resolve the administrative error.
Barry and Magalie Lawrence believe that they were perceived as threatening because they are Black.
“We didn’t brandish a weapon, we didn’t try to breach the doors, we didn’t curse anyone, we were just upset like other people were upset,” Barry said.
“Everybody can yell. Everybody can get upset, but Black people are not supposed to get upset,” Magalie added.
State officials stopped short of an apology.
“I’m certainly sorry that that’s the way that they interpreted that,” Martin said. All Department of Environmental Services employees must undergo a “respect in the workplace” training and are subject to the State of New Hampshire’s respect and civility in the workplace policy, which mentions diversity.
“We welcome and support people of all backgrounds, abilities, and identities,” the policy states. “We have a general awareness of the rights, concerns, and feelings of others.”
Barry and Magalie Lawrence and have lived in Concord since 2002 and have three children. They like the city and the state but said there have been a handful of bad encounters over the years, including their kids being called racial slurs in school.
Although the family knows and trusts the officers in the Concord Police Department, Magalie said that when one of her sons was stopped while driving near Alton, a police officer asked his white girlfriend to step out of the car and then asked her if she felt safe. Her son was a senior in high school at the time who spent his Friday nights playing chess and was the co-captain of the wrestling team.
Encounters like these, as well protests sparked by police shootings of Black people elsewhere, were on Magalie’s mind at the state office when she said a minor call could have had horrible consequences.
Despite a population that is growing more racially diverse with new immigration and the arrival of refugees, Magalie said she’s experienced bolder racial hatred in recent years.
“It was not like that in New Hampshire,” she said. “The last few years have been hell. It’s worse than I have ever seen it.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.