A Tennessee Republican lawmaker stood before several of his Black colleagues in the state House on Tuesday and gave an impassioned defense of one of the most racist policies in America’s history. State Rep. Justin Lafferty made the baffling comments about the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise—which deemed a slave to be only three-fifths of a person—during a debate about legislation meant to impose restrictions on how schools teach students about systemic racism. After several Black lawmakers expressed concern about how the legislation would affect the way some subjects are taught, particularly the Three-Fifths Compromise, Lafferty stood up to defend the members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 who made the policy that diminished the representation of enslaved people.
“By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives who would be available in the slave-holding states and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery—well before Abraham Lincoln, well before the Civil War,” Lafferty said, calling it a “direct effort” to limit the Southern states’ power. Slavery continued in the U.S. for nearly 80 years after the Three-Fifths Compromise, and historians have said the policy only gave slave-holding states more power. That didn’t stop several of Lafferty’s Republican colleagues from standing up to applaud his speech—which Memphis Democrat Rep. Antonio Parkinson called the “real insult.”