The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lawmaker wanted to ban ‘divisive’ teaching on race. Then he mentioned ‘the good’ of slavery.

Republican state Rep. Ray Garofalo of Louisiana on April 27 briefly said that public schools should teach the "good" of slavery before walking back his comment. (Video: Louisiana House of Representatives)
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Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified where Rep. Ray Garofalo Jr. was speaking about the bill. It was in a House committee meeting.

When a Louisiana lawmaker questioned state Rep. Ray Garofalo Jr. (R) during a House committee meeting on Tuesday over his bill that would ban schools and colleges from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and sex, Garofalo Jr. mentioned he didn’t “want to say anything I shouldn’t say.”

Moments later, though, the room erupted when the GOP lawmaker tried to give examples of how he would like to see the state’s teachers discuss slavery.

“If you are 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 Jr. said.

“There is no good to slavery though,” Rep. Stephanie Hilferty (R) swiftly replied before the House burst into laughter.

Garofalo Jr. quickly walked back the comment, saying, “I didn’t mean to imply that. I don’t believe that and I know that’s not the case,” but that didn’t stop his statement from going viral on social media — and possibly helping to doom his bill.

The incident is the latest firestorm over GOP efforts across the country to push similar legislation that would ban critical race theory, which examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he intended to create civics curriculums without “unsanctioned narratives like critical race theory.” Similarly, last week, the Idaho House passed a bill looking to prevent schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, the Associated Press reported.

Garofalo Jr., a commercial developer and nonpracticing attorney, was elected in 2011 to represent St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans.

His bill, which seeks to bar schools from teaching that the United States or Louisiana is “systematically racist or sexist,” was modeled after legislation in Idaho and Florida, he said. It includes an extensive list of requirements on how teachers would have to handle discussions of race, sex and national origin in the classroom and would have prohibited giving students, teachers or employees information that “teaches, advocates, acts upon or promotes divisive concepts.”

In a hearing Tuesday in the House Education Committee, Garofalo Jr., who chairs the committee, defended the bill as a way to take the “politics out of the classroom” and ensure “a learning environment free of discrimination.”

“I have no doubt there are certain factions in this country that are trying to infiltrate and indoctrinate our students,” he said. Garofalo Jr. also said critical race theory “furthers racism and fuels hate.”

But he faced intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats who argued that telling schools what to teach could violate the First Amendment. Critics also claimed the bill’s language was too vague and could scare teachers and professors away from thoughtful and difficult discussions.

Pressed by Hilferty to explain the motivation behind the bill, Garofalo Jr. claimed instructors were teaching “theories” instead of facts, and alleged parents had complained about teaching materials “saying the United States is a racist country.”

“You can teach the good, the bad, the ugly,” he said. “But you cannot say that the theories are facts. You can teach facts as facts. You can teach theories as theories.”

Hilferty, though, noted that some historical events — such as the Holocaust and slavery — do not have two sides to discuss.

After hours of debate, many legislators were not convinced by Garofalo Jr.'s arguments.

“I cannot imagine not teaching all of the facts about history,” Rep. Aimee Freeman (D) said.

Rep. Barbara Freiberg (R) argued lawmakers shouldn’t rush to vote on the bill during the session. “I’m not sure that we can get this bill in the correct posture this session,” she said.

Eventually, the committee voted in a 7-7 impasse, which technically keeps the bill alive. Although multiple lawmakers advised Garofalo Jr. against bringing the bill back, he said he plans to revise its language and reintroduce it for further discussion.