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Bill Aims To Ban Teaching About Systemic Racism; Doctor Calls It 'Wolf In Sheep's Clothing'

N.H. Statehouse
Dan Tuohy / NHPR

A bill modeled on one of former President Donald Trump's executive orders has found its way into the state budget debate. The bill, known as House Bill 544, would ban public money from institutions, including schools that teach that any individual is inherently racist, oppressive or sexist based on their race or gender.

Critics say it would effectively ban any instruction or training in the state on systemic racism. Gov. Chris Sununu says he wants the language out of the budget, but he also said on NHPR that systemic racism does not exist in New Hampshire.

Dr. Nirav Kapadia, radiation oncologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, has spoken out against this bill, calling it a wolf in sheep's clothing. He joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss it.

Peter Biello: So why is HB 544, as you say, a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Dr. Nirav Kapadia: Well, I think it plays to maybe some straw man type fears, and it basically tries to simplify and confuse issues that we know exist related to systemic and structural racism. And it tries to boil these down and confuse these with interpersonal bigotry. And it really falsely portrays the current economic and social playing field for all people as being level. And I think that it's essentially disingenuous and it seeks to stifle an honest conversation about race and equity inequality.

Biello: Doctors don't often write op-eds. So what made you want to come out in opposition to this bill, in your op-ed? 

Dr. Kapadia: Yeah, I'm not an op-ed writer. This is honestly the first time I've done anything like this. But the fact is that I felt as a physician, we do need to use our voices for good when it's possible. And also I have a kind of a unique understanding, as a physician, that racism is bad for your health. The CDC just in the last week came out and said racism is a public health threat and this idea is not new. And structural racism and implicit bias, which HB 544 tries to comment on really are two sides of the same coin. And they are a stain of our country's slaveholding past that have perpetuated the modern day. And I felt that this bill, if adopted, really would set our state back quite a bit. And as the business community has said, it would cast a national spotlight on our state, not in a good way, and it would be a black eye for New Hampshire.

Biello: So would this bill, as written, prevent you or doctors and other institutions from talking with their patients about the negative health impacts of racism?

Dr. Kapadia: I don't know that it would stop me from talking to my patients about it. And I think this is one of the tactics that was taken by a supporter of five forty four who essentially tried to conflate what I had stated in my op ed with what I was actually trying to state. The bill wouldn't stop me from talking to my patients. But what stopped me from talking to students, I do teach medical students. I teach residents. And some of these funds do come through state entities. And if as a state contractor, my hospital is teaching students, it would be prohibited from discussing these, quote unquote, divisive issues.

Biello: And do you do you work differently nowadays now that there's more discussion of racism and its impacts on health?

Dr. Kapadia: Well, I'm certainly more attuned to these things, I know a lot of medical schools nowadays are incorporating implicit bias training into their curricula, and that's because implicit bias in health care is widespread and well documented. For example, Black E.R. patients and Hispanic E.R. patients are about half as likely to receive pain medications from migraine and back pain. Black patients are about half as likely to be believed if they're presenting with signs and symptoms of a heart attack. And so these are things that we know are true, that have been borne out in the scientific literature, and we have to be able to understand why they're true. So certainly it has helped hone a research interest in disparities not just in race, but also in gender and also rurality, which is a big problem in our community. And it comes back to the simple problem that if you cannot talk about these things, you cannot understand them. And if you can't understand them, you cannot fix them.

Biello: What's it like to hear all these discussions in the state, not just about HB 544 specifically, but also white backlash we're seeing against diversity efforts in the state?

Dr. Kapadia: Yeah, it's a little troubling, as you might guess from my name. I am not white myself. I'm married to a white woman. I have mixed race children. And these sorts of movements are concerning. And certainly if they continue in this progression, this this regression, it would really question whether or not we want to stay in this part of the country.

Biello: Dr. Kapadia, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with me.

Dr. Kapadia: It's 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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