Commentary

In this legislative session, Louisiana Republicans flipped the meaning of discrimination | Jarvis DeBerry

June 11, 2021 11:00 am
Louisiana Capitol Building

The Louisiana Legislature ended its regular session Thursday. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)

During a committee meeting where he voted against legislation that sought to protect Louisiana’s LGBTQ renters from housing discrimination, Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City) spoke firsthand about the discrimination he himself has been facing:  “Personally I don’t wear a mask, and I get discriminated against,” he said. In defense of what might be property managers’ “different belief system,” McCormick said, “I’m not trying to run a bill to say you have to let me come in your store.”

McCormick’s suggestion that he, a White, Christian conservative who owns an oil company, has been soldiering through discrimination makes light of what discrimination actually is. At the same time, making light of discrimination and suggesting that the less vulnerable among us are more in need of protection, is what Louisiana Republicans did repeatedly during the session that ended Thursday.

Rather than frame the bills prohibiting transgender girls from athletic competition as discrimination against transgender girls, Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton) and Rep. Beryl Amedee (R-Houma) called their legislation “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” thereby suggesting that those who aren’t being discriminated against deserve protection over those who are.

Amedee’s bill died in committee, but conservative lawmakers stood on the floor of the Louisiana House and cheered when Mizell’s bill got enough votes — including votes from Democrats — to be sent to the governor. Their victory was over an imaginary opponent because Louisiana law already makes it near impossible for transgender athletes to compete, and there’s no evidence that a transgender girl has sought to compete.

As reporter Julie O’Donoghue reported in May, a transgender boy who ran track at Mandeville High is the only transgender student in Louisiana known to have participated in high school athletic competition. Including transgender boys in boys athletics is usually not characterized as unfair, but the Louisiana High School Athletics Association wouldn’t let the boy in question run against boys even though he was taking testosterone.

The Legislature’s ostensible concern for women didn’t extend to Black women who, even at this late date, are subject to employment discrimination for wearing their hair in the texture it naturally grows. Think of the poor companies who might have expectations regarding the way their employees present themselves! That was the argument from Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) and Rep. Dodie Horton (R-Haughton), who spoke up to defend bosses. “I just don’t want to take a business’s ability away to create their own standards no matter who it is,” Horton said.

Many Black women object, and rightfully so, to the idea that they might have to make their naturally kinky hair straight in order to be considered worthy of employment.  

When then-state Sen. Troy Carter, a Black man, told Horton, a White woman, that she wouldn’t appreciate the legislative leadership telling her that her straight hair was no longer allowed, Horton, who lives in North Louisiana, retorted, “I don’t live in a world and wasn’t raised in one that was prejudiced against someone.”

Oh, yes, she does; and, yes, she was — as has everyone else who’s spent any time in this state or country. The difference is that some folks have found such prejudice unavoidable, and others have gone about their lives oblivious to what happens to others.

In this session, members of the Legislative Black Caucus seemed to be constantly explaining to their White colleagues that Black and White Louisianians inhabit different realities. When Sen. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe) argued that requiring Louisianians to properly train and obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon is an imposition, Black Caucus leader Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) told him that police are unlikely to look innocently upon Black men who cite “constitutional carry.” But that didn’t change Morris’ mind or stop the Legislature from passing a bill allowing permitless carry.

At the heart of the failed attempt from Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) to stop teachers from pointing out how racism has shaped society is the idea that lessons about racism victimize White children by making them feel bad.  Meanwhile, our state’s disciplinary statistics show Black children are harmed by racism itself.

The Legislature is just now allowing a Black history course to count toward TOPS qualification, which means that such classes have likely been avoided by college-bound students, but Hodges from the House floor May 24 asked for more lessons on the Holocaust.

In the state’s history standards, she said, “Genocide is not mentioned one time. The Holocaust is mentioned just once. That’s not good enough.”

“Do you know if the Middle Passage is mentioned?” Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans), a Black man, asked. 

She appeared confused. 

“Do you know what the Middle Passage is?” he said, and Hodges said,  “The what?”

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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 NOLA.com) 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.

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