Bill that would have teachers cover ‘the good, the bad, the ugly’ of slavery gets slammed by Louisiana lawmakers

Louisiana House Education chair pulls controversial bill

By: - April 28, 2021 9:18 am

Rep. Ray Garofalo’s bill that would have banned schools from teaching about racism and sexism failed to make it through the Louisiana House Education Committee Tuesday. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

A bill that would have prevented public school teachers from teaching that either the U.S. or Louisiana “is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist or sexist” faced stiff opposition in a Louisiana House committee Tuesday, forcing its author — Chalmette Republican Ray Garofalo — to voluntarily defer it “so we can work on it.”

Garofalo, who chairs the Louisiana House Education Committee, wrote HB 564 after becoming upset that LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs has been hosting an ongoing series of panels called “Racism: Dismantling the System.” In a February letter to Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter-Reed, Garofalo asked what system needs dismantling. He was particularly upset by a panel that month that featured two Black LSU professors and another Black professor from Syracuse University discussing a book they co-edited called “The Religion of White Rage: White Workers, Religious Fervor, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress.

Garofalo called his proposed legislation “Every Student is Equal Act” and in Tuesday’s meeting decried “critical race theory,” a framework used to demonstrate how racism has shaped and continues to shape modern society.  “The simple truth is that supporting critical race theory is actually creating systemic racism,” Garofalo said in support of his bill. “Louisiana lawmakers — that’s us — have a duty and responsibility to protect the right of every individual to a learning environment that’s free of discrimination.”

Critical race theory was attacked by former President Donald Trump during his last year in office. His administration released a September 2020 memo banning federal agencies from anti-bias training that the administration characterized as “divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.”

President Joe Biden erased Trump’s order on Jan. 20, the day he was inaugurated:  “I’m rescinding the previous administration’s harmful ban on diversity and sensitivity training,” he said. “Unity and healing must begin with understanding and truth, not ignorance and lies.”

Garofalo said many teachers and parents had contacted him in support of this bill, but were afraid to do so publicly, he said,  out of fear of retribution. He said some Louisiana schools have disseminated handouts to parents that say “the United States is a racist country and corporations are inherently racist and have a bias.” He said he couldn’t share those handouts because the people who told him about them asked him not to.

His bill would ban  schools or universities from “race or sex scapegoating” — which is defined in the legislation as “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of a person’s race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or inherently inclined to oppress others or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inherently inclined to oppress others.”

Rep. Gary Carter (D-Algiers) made a motion to involuntarily defer Garofalo’s bill, but the committee deadlocked at 7-7. Garofalo said he’d voluntarily shelve it.

Carter, referring to Garofalo’s claim that he wants to “get politics out of the classroom,” responded: “I want to get politics out of the legislature, so we could get some real stuff done.”

“Fixing our literacy, funding early education by trying to solve the crisis of our kids, not having the educational resource that we have,” Carter said, “you have such a great opportunity as chairman of the Education Committee to take on these sorts of challenges and solve them, but I’m disappointed that we engaged in such divisive legislation and so I’m glad… you have voluntarily agreed to defer this bill.”

Aimee Freeman (D-New Orleans) read a statement from Chris Dier, the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, who opposed the bill as “a United States history teacher.”

“History teachers have an obligation to provide students with the truth of the foundation of our country — scars and all,” Freeman read from Dier’s statement. The history teacher’s statement cited the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted each enslaved African as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining how many U.S. representatives each state would get. Dier’s statement also cited laws that prevented women from voting or from divorcing abusive husbands as “clear examples of institutional, systemic” racism and sexism.

“These simply were not practiced by a few bad apples, it was legitimized and perpetrated by institutions,” Freeman said. “It was systematic, by the definition of the word ‘system.’”

Louisiana teachers, representatives of STAR (Sexual Trauma and Awareness), the NAACP, and the LSU student government all spoke in opposition to Garafol’s bill. Rep. Mark Wright (R-Covington) said the committee received seven email messages supporting the bill and 107 opposed.

BESE president Sandy Holloway testified that BESE opposes the bill.

“We have heard from educators across the state — with regard to this bill — and the undue burden of risk and stress it could place on them and their school leadership,” Holloway said. “How would our teachers be able to ensure honesty when teaching history without fear of repercussions? How would each classroom be monitored each day? These are questions for which there do not appear yet to be answers and cause teachers and administrators concern.”

“If an English teacher assigns ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou — which is about the heavy weight of systemic racism on her life — is that okay?”  Belinda Davis, a BESE member-at-large, asked.

Garofalo said he expected BESE and school districts to be in charge of developing protocols and procedures to enforce his proposed restrictions.

“If you’re teaching, if you’re having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything dealing with slavery. The good, the bad, the ugly,” Garofalo said.

“There’s no good to slavery, though,” Metairie Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty responded.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.