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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Black legislator’s speech on Idaho House floor was just what some people need to hear

Debating in favor of Idaho’s higher education budget, Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, on Monday found himself in a position of defending against right-wing legislators’ attacks on social justice programs, diversity and inclusion programs, and discussions of critical race theory.

His impassioned and reasoned speech on the House floor demonstrated why representation is so important in the Idaho Legislature.

And, in effect, Mathias — the only Black member of the Legislature — both talked about and demonstrated why it’s so important that we have social justice programs, we talk about critical race theory, and we have diversity and inclusion programs.

Chris Mathias

“Now, as a Black man and someone who is deeply familiar with these concepts and ideas at both a practical level, and an academic level, I have been saddened by this conversation,” Mathias said. “I think it has been disappointing, and I think it’s been problematic.

“I am a proud Boise State graduate. … That place provided opportunities I’ve never seen before in my life,” Mathias said as he began to choke up with emotion. “It changed my life.”

Mathias went on to defend the importance of Idaho’s institutions of higher education simply as an economic tool for the state.

He also took head-on the Republicans’ attacks on social justice programs and critical race theory.

“Critical race theory and critical race theorists do believe this single thing: that America’s social institutions, our legislatures, our courts, our schools, you name it, they do have, to varying extents, they are embedded, to varying extents, with some bias toward people of color,” Mathias said. “I don’t think that’s controversial.”

His voice again cracking with emotion, he continued: “When you look at outcomes, virtually every law and policy that we maintain has a disparate and adverse impact on people of color. Housing, health, education, wealth, income. People of color always come out on the losing end. Always, and I don’t think it’s unfair to acknowledge it. ”

House Speaker Scott Bedke put the House at ease after a back-and-forth resulting from objections from Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who just moments prior had argued against the higher education budget on the grounds of critical race theory, and diversity and inclusion programs, at Idaho’s colleges and universities.

They objected to Mathias’ testimony on the grounds that he was talking about diversity and inclusion programs at Idaho’s colleges and universities.

Apparently, Scott and Nate think it’s OK for them to debate against the budget based on those programs, but Mathias is not allowed to discuss those same programs when he debates in favor of the budget.

This was an irony not lost on Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, who tweeted just as the House went into recess: “Reps. Nate, (Tammy) Nichols, and Scott just raised the most hypocritical and unprincipled series of objections I’ve heard in #idleg to interrupt debate they disagreed with after bloviating repeatedly on #CriticalRaceTheory for weeks including bills w/o real nexus.”

It’s important that Mathias was able to bring his perspective to this debate. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more Idaho representation to accurately reflect diverse perspectives.

“I’ve heard it repeatedly claimed that critical race theory is divisive, it divides us. But that claim is historically ignorant,” Mathias said. “The truth is that our federal government, our state governments, our local governments, countless private enterprises have spent hundreds of years dividing us, telling us who’s property and who’s not, where I can live, where I can’t, where we can eat, whether I can vote, what my mortgage interest rate is.”

It was also important that Mathias took this issue head-on. Too often we’ve heard the argument, “Well, this isn’t happening here,” as if teaching about racism, social justice, our history of slavery, the practice of redlining, discrimination and Jim Crow laws shouldn’t be part of our education system.

The Mathias speech about those issues was exactly what some legislators needed to hear.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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