Ray Garofalo won’t get to pass his shaky grasp of history down to Louisiana’s students | Jarvis DeBerry

Bill was bad enough even without remark about the ‘good’ of slavery

April 30, 2021 7:25 am

State Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) defended himself on the floor of the Louisiana House Wednesday, telling lawmakers that his Tuesday remarked that referred to “the good, the bad, the ugly” of slavery was “taken out of context” and “inflammatorily” reported. Garofalo was speaking in favor of a bill he authored that would have prohibited lessons that teach that the country or state is racist or sexist. (Screenshot of Louisiana House proceedings)

If Louisiana Rep. Ray Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, had been engaged in some noble purpose Tuesday — that is, if he had been putting forward a bill that would have been an actual benefit to anybody — then his statement that the state’s teachers should be made to teach “the good, the bad, the ugly” regarding slavery might legitimately be called a gaffe and treated as a no biggie.

But Garofalo wasn’t putting forward a good bill. He was offering legislation to promote the preposterous idea that a country that wiped out people who were already here and imported people who didn’t want to be here isn’t fundamentally racist and isn’t yet profiting from those great crimes.

His bill, which he withdrew, would have prohibited the state’s public school teachers and professors from teaching that either the U.S. or Louisiana “is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist or sexist.” That means his bill would have shielded Louisiana’s students from lessons about the murderous invasion of Native land, lessons about America’s 350-year history of slavery and Jim Crow and lessons about how that has shaped today. So Garofalo gets no benefit of the doubt.

Why shouldn’t his fellow lawmakers believe that his remark about the good of slavery was anything but a slip of the truth, especially when that argument remains a fairly common talking point among White southerners? Why should they doubt Garofalo thinks slavery had some benefits when he drafted a bill that would block teachers from pointing out that the U.S. government not only endorsed slavery but was enriched by slavery?

As absurd as Garofalo’s attempt to exonerate the United States is, his attempt to exonerate Louisiana is that much more so. Africans held captive in the United States dreaded few things as much as being “sold down river.” Garofalo’s legislative district — which includes St. Bernard Parish and a sliver of New Orleans — is about as far down river as one can go, but his bill would have promoted the fiction that Louisiana was and is as innocent as the country that took it over.

The historians who work at Whitney Plantation on the west bank of St. John the Baptist Parish have this to say about the slavery here: “Because of the nature of sugar production, enslaved people suffered tremendously in South Louisiana. The sugar districts of Louisiana stand out as the only area in the slaveholding south with a negative birth rate among the enslaved population (emphasis mine). Death was common on Louisiana’s sugar plantations due to the harsh nature of the labor, the disease environment, and lack of proper nutrition and medical care.”

Is it Garofalo’s contention that it’s mere happenstance that the state’s largest prison is a former plantation — named for an actual African country, no less — and that 68 percent of the people in Louisiana’s prisons are Black? Is it his contention that Black Louisianians earn less, own less, get sick more often and die earlier because that’s just the natural order of things?

As Jamaican novelist Kei Miller puts it in “The Last Warner Woman:” “[E]very now didn’t simply reach so by itself. Every now have its before. Every destination have its journey.”

It’s important to note that the assertion in Garofalo’s bill that the country isn’t sexist is no less bad than his denial of racism. But it was the remark suggesting that there was something good about slavery that prompted  the Legislative Black Caucus and the New Orleans City Council to argue that he should be removed as chair of the House Education Committee. Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that Garofalo’s removal would be justified.

Garofalo was presumably speaking to members of the state’s Black Caucus Wednesday (or at a minimum, including them) when he took the microphone on the floor of House and, without apologizing for a bill that disregarded and disrespected their history and their current day existence, said “I consider us all family” and as “more than friends.” He insisted that his remarks had been reported “inflammatorily” and said “I would hope that you would know better than the reports that are being made about me in the press.”

The caucus was not impressed. Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) said the language in the bill by itself was “enough to offend,” and Rep. Gary Carter (D-Algiers) said Garofalo has “disqualified himself from leadership.”

Whether Garofalo loses his chairmanship will be left up to House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales), but what a bad look it is that a lawmaker chairing a committee on education is in such great need of one.


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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.