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A Tennessee lawmaker thinks the Three-Fifths Compromise—an article of the Constitution that counted enslaved people as 60 percent of a human being—has been unfairly maligned.
On Tuesday morning, Tennessee lawmakers debated yet another iteration of a bill to ban “critical race theory” from the state’s public schools curriculum. Versions of such legislation have cropped up around the country recently as Republicans react to a push to make schools more inclusive by educating students about systemic racism. Last week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed one such ban into law.
Tennessee’s version of the bill would, among other things, prohibit educators from teaching that “This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”—something that isn’t happening now. It would also bar teachers from “promoting division” between classes or races, a nebulous concept that critics say is designed to shut down discussions about the role of race and racism in American history.
“I’ve sat here praying for about five or ten minutes about how I’m going to address this issue,” Rep. Justin Lafferty of Knoxville started his remarks on the floor. Apparently he didn’t pray hard enough, because it got much worse from there.
“The Three-Fifths Compromise—and I’ve not looked this up, I’m rolling off of memory here, so bear with me—came after we declared our independence to Britain, which was at the time a world power that we can’t comprehend today,” Lafferty said. He went on to call the compromise a “bitter, bitter pill” that was necessary to unify the American colonies, and argued that delegates to the Constitutional Convention made the compromise in order to end slavery.
“By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery,” Lafferty said. “Well before Abraham Lincoln. Well before [the] Civil War. Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere in this conversation!”
While it’s true that the Three-Fifths Compromise was integral to the unification of the states and ratification of the Constitution, and that some in the new Northern states opposed slavery, the compromise was also meant to stop the Southern states, which had large enslaved populations, from dominating the new government. Congress would keep making compromises that continued the practice of slavery until the Civil War, which finally brought about the necessary end of slavery and the repeal of the Three-Fifths Compromise from the Constitution.
“I don’t say anything on this floor today with any malice toward any of my friends on the other side,” Lafferty said later. “I say this only because I’m tired, y’all.” At the end of his speech, some House Republicans clapped for Lafferty.
Lafferty is somehow not the first state legislator this year to defend the integrity of the Three-Fifths Compromise; in April, Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks, also a Republican, made a joke about a colleague named Lynch before arguing the compromise “was not impugning anybody’s humanity.”
Also last month, while debating a bill similar to Tennessee's, Louisiana state Rep. Ray Garofolo argued that teachers should be impartial about topics such as slavery and teach “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the system which kept Black Americans in chains for centuries, before being forced to clarify that he actually didn’t think there was anything “good” about slavery.
Predictably, Lafferty’s Black colleagues slammed both his comments and the bill he was commenting on. Speaking with MSNBC, Rep. London Lamar said the Republicans are “whitewashing history” and that they’re “not even clear on what the issues of the Three-Fifths Compromise and other racism issues in America are.”
“Using the word Critical Race Theory and all of these other acronyms that they don’t even understand themselves is, to me, an opportunity for them not to be held accountable to the history of what White America has done to Black people,” Lamar told MSNBC.
Antonio Parkinson, the chairman of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Black Caucus, said in a statement that the Tennessee General Assembly’s “conversations around race are very uncomfortable,” but that the “real insult was when the House Republicans clapped for [Lafferty] when he finished his diatribe.”
“What I appreciate about his soliloquy is the fact that he gave us his truth, his rationale as to why he was supporting the amendment to force teachers through law to whitewash historical events,” Parkinson added. “This is exactly what needs to happen in our state.”