We can’t erase racism from history books

State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello (R-149) was speaking in favor of SB 350, an act establishing Juneteenth as a legal holiday. But as she spoke, she demonstrated a dangerous misunderstanding of this history.

Fiorello was among many legislators who spoke on the last day of the 2022 legislative session in support of a Connecticut holiday on June 19, the date in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed the enslaved people that President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had freed them. Only one legislator spoke against this holiday, objecting to taxpayer funding for an additional paid day off for state employees. The bill passed 148-1.

Unlike all other speakers who supported the bill, including many Black legislators who gave emotional speeches about the meaning of Juneteenth in the Black experience and the historical importance of this emancipation day, Fiorello attempted to erase its blackness through her whitewashed version of history. She objected to the focus on race, saying this was not about Black history or race, but about equal treatment for all.

“Since the time I have been here, I have seen a focus on race that I think is unhealthy,” she said.

Since first elected to office in 2020, Fiorello has consistently held this attitude, voting against all bills that address racial disparities. Last year, for instance, she voted against a bill that recognized racism as contributing to a public health crisis in Connecticut. She called the bill, which passed with a 114-33 bipartisan vote, “reprehensible.”

“This bill declares to the world … that the state of Connecticut has a racism problem in its public health,” she told “Fox & Friends.” “To me this is critical race theory in our laws.”

Fiorello began her Juneteenth speech with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, using it as a springboard for alternative history. The American Constitution required compromises, she said, regarding the three-fifths compromise that counted enslaved people as three-fifth of a person. She claimed this compromise was in the service of freedom, eventually leading to recognition of the enslaved as whole people.

In truth, enslaved people had no rights whatsoever, but were counted as three-fifths of a person for taxation purposes and, most importantly, for slave state representation in Congress. This compromise not only gave slave states more congressional seats and electoral votes but also allowed for the expansion of slavery.

In Fiorello’s alternative history, the three-fifth compromise was finally settled in favor of the enslaved during the Civil War when Lincoln delivered his 1863 Gettysburg Address. Lincoln freed the slaves, making them whole people, end of racism. No mention of the need for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Reconstruction amendments, or the Jim Crow backlash, the Ku Klux Klan, the burnings of Black schools and churches, the lynching, the separate but equal laws that continued for another century, the racism that continues to this very day.

The pushback against Fiorello’s astounding assertions was swift. Legislators, white and Black, weighed in.

Rep. Christine Palm (D-36) felt compelled to set the record straight, pointing out that the three-fifths compromise was devoid of the humanity Fiorello claimed for it. Palm called that fact in our history unpleasant, ugly, and true, also pointing out the truth that our founders meant only white male landowners in their reference to all men as equal.

“To hear people talk about disparity and discrimination and say that it has nothing to do with racism really tears at the heart of some of us who go through those disparities,” said Rep. Anthony Nolan (D-39).

Fiorello’s whitewashing the three-fifths compromise and erasing racism from the American historical narrative conforms to a national MAGA-inspired agenda to censure truthful teaching about slavery and racism. It’s happening in legislatures and school boards throughout the country.

The Juneteenth debate deepened our understanding of American history, alerting us to the racist danger in Fiorello’s narrative and engaging us in the need to address the unfinished work before us, the traditional hearing of Lincoln’s Gettysburg call.

“This bill is an acknowledgment of how far we’ve come,” said the final speaker, Rep. Jason Rojas (D-9). “But sadly, this bill is also an acknowledgment of how much further we need to go, and with that I urge passage.”

Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich government for 30 years.

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