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Haney López On Critical Race Theory And 'Dog Whistle Politics' Around One N.H. Bill

Ian Haney López

A bill in the New Hampshire House has prompted heated debate over how systemic racism is discussed in the state's public schools.

House Bill 544 would prohibit teaching about so-called divisive concepts such as racism and sexism in public schools and other state funded programs. And so far, much of the conversation has hinged on critical race theory, a field that includes the study of systemic racism and the relationship between law, race and power. All Things Considered Host Peter Biello spoke with Ian Haney López, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, about the legislation. Haney Lopez is a critical race theory scholar.

Thank you very much for speaking with me.

Very glad to be able to join you.

What are the basic principles of critical race theory?

I'd say there are two. One is that we take racism seriously as something that's fundamental to the origins and continued practices of our society. And second, that we understand race as something that's socially produced rather than as something that is natural or rooted fundamentally in biology.

It sounds like what you're describing is systemic racism, that it's a part of American culture.

Systemic racism is one of the important insights of critical race theory, but it's just one and it's in conversation with other insights. So, for example, most people understand racism as rooted in personal antipathy. Some individual hates other people because of the color of their skin. That's certainly a form of racism. I think speaking back to that and trying to amplify our conception of the different forms that racism can take, the language of systemic racism says, hey, you know, once you organize a society for three or four hundred years in terms of a supposed dominance of one race over another, it's going to turn out that there are many practices or institutions that have racist effects that continue that domination and subordination, and that it's much more than just something that's exceptional and that occurs on the margins much more than a problem that can be very easily remedied.

The bill here in New Hampshire, House Bill 544, would prohibit, among other things, teaching that the state of New Hampshire or the country is fundamentally racist or sexist, or that to quote another part of the bill to teach that, quote, an individual by virtue of his or her race or sex bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. What do you hear in that?

So on one level, the the bill is attacking a straw person. There is no such thing as a sort of a critical race theory that is itself a racist belief that certain individuals are born one way or born another. That's a bunch of baloney. But it's important to step back and say, well, why the baloney? Why all this nonsense? What's really going on? And here's this second critique. We have seen ever since the civil rights movement from Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy to Ronald Reagan and his talk about welfare queens all the way up to Donald Trump and his complaints about Muslim terrorists and illegal aliens and Black Lives Matter as anarchists who want to destroy our country, we've seen a purposeful effort by some politicians to mobilize racial resentment in a form of divide and distract politics. That is what we call dog whistle politics. That's what you see in New Hampshire right now. Not a legitimate engagement with a studied, a careful and honest engagement with critical race theory, but an effort to turn critical race theory into yet another racial boogeyman.

It's interesting that you mention politicians dividing us when the language of this bill, HB544, says it seeks to not have state sponsored discussions of divisive concepts.

That's why it's important to understand that says dog whistle politics, rather than the straight up language of racial resentment.

So at this moment, when our country's racial history and present inequities are more in the spotlight, what do you wish more people were talking about?

I wish more people were talking about who we want to become, what we are to each other as citizens, as members of this society, and frankly, I think more of us need to be having a sustained conversation about where the real hardships in our lives originate from, because things are going wrong in the United States. And we need we must recognize that we must be able to talk about it. We must say, why are we the wealthiest country in the world, and so many people are struggling economically? True patriotism is saying we want our country to be the best version of itself we can make it. And for that to be true, we need to pay attention to the actual hardships on our society and figure out a way forward that helps every member of our society.

Ian Haney Lopez, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Thank you is my pleasure.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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