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La. Black lawmakers want chairman ousted for ‘divisive’ bill

April 28, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s Black lawmakers Wednesday called for the removal of the House Education Committee chairman for his bill aimed at limiting conversations about racism and sexism in schools and a debate in which he referenced the “good” parts of slavery.

The Legislative Black Caucus said Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo’s legislation includes “insensitive and racist elements,” and they suggested his slavery comments only worsened the insult they felt from the proposal.

“An apology is not enough,” Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs the Black Caucus, said in a statement. “The defense of systemic racism throughout our country is unarguably an issue, and the language of this proposal alone is enough to offend those of us working toward change.”

Garofalo said in a speech Wednesday on the House floor that his comments were taken out of context, blamed the media for inflaming the issue and said he took his Facebook page down because of an onslaught of critical messages.

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“I would hope that you know better than the reports that are being made about me in the press. I would hope you respect me enough to know that I did not say what they’re accusing me of saying,” said Garofalo, from St. Bernard Parish.

But he didn’t apologize for his comments in Tuesday’s hearing on his bill, which remains stalled in committee.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who decides committee chairmanships, said he planned to meet with black lawmakers Thursday to discuss their request to oust Garofalo from his leadership post.

“I haven’t made a decision. I’m going to meet with the Black Caucus first,” Schexnayder said.

The comments about slavery came in an exchange with New Orleans Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, who raised concerns about Garofalo’s bill during a hearing Tuesday. She was pressing him to explain how the measure would work practically in a classroom.

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

Hilferty interrupted him: “There’s no good to slavery, though.”

Amid laughter in the room, Garofalo replied: “You’re right. You’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that. And I don’t believe that.”

The Black Caucus’ statement took issue not just with the slavery comments — but also with the broader aims of the bill.

An effort in the House Education Committee to kill the bill failed in a 7-7 vote Tuesday. Lawmakers pressed ahead with the vote even after Garofalo said he wasn’t trying to move the legislation yet because of concerns from Schexnayder and others. But Garofalo said he intended to try to push forward with the proposal after working on language changes.

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James said the Black Caucus was given the impression the bill wouldn’t even get a hearing because of lawmakers’ concerns about the content. Instead, Garofalo’s committee held an acrimonious five-hour hearing on the measure.

The bill would prohibit the teaching that the United States or Louisiana is “systematically racist or sexist,” among a long list of requirements about how to handle discussions of race, sex and national origin in the classroom. It would bar giving students or employees information that “teaches, advocates, acts upon or promotes divisive concepts.”

Garofalo said he modeled the language on bills from Florida and Iowa. He specifically criticized the teaching of critical race theory — which examines the ways in which race and racism influence politics, culture and the law — saying that “furthers racism and fuels hate.”

He faced a barrage of criticism that he was proposing to stifle free speech and ignore the country’s long history of racism and sexism.

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The bill is filed as House Bill 564.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.