DENVER – Democrats in Colorado have condemned a Republican lawmaker for joking about lynching before saying an 18th century policy designating a slave as three-fifths of a person “was not impugning anybody’s humanity."
State Rep. Ron Hanks was speaking on the House floor Thursday about legislation aimed at strengthening civics education. He was accidentally introduced as fellow Rep. Mike Lynch.
“Being called Mr. Lynch might be a good thing for what I’m about to say. No, just kidding," Hanks said.
Hanks, who is white, then spoke about the Three-Fifths Compromise, which was made during the nation's Constitutional Convention in 1787 and classified a slave as three-fifths of a person when apportioning taxes and states’ representation in Congress.
“It was not impugning anybody’s humanity,” Hanks said. “Is this really racist to be talking about what the Three-Fifths Compromise was? I don’t think so, and I think it’s important. It’s part of the civics lesson here. It was brought up, and it merits discussion.”
Hanks added that the compromise was an effort by the Northern states to keep Southern states from having too much representation in Congress and push slavery beyond the South.
“It took a war to do it. It took 600,000 American lives. It took a lot of treasure. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught,” Hanks said.
Halisi Vinson, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party, said Hanks' comments were a way to "whitesplain the historical experience of Black people."
“The fact that Representative Hanks thought it would be appropriate to make a ‘joke’ about lynching — especially at a time when we’re seeing a rise of racially motivated assaults on people of color across our country — is utterly despicable," Vinson said in a statement.
Shenika Carter, chair of the African Diaspora Initiative of the Colorado Democratic Party, said that calling Hank's comments “disgusting and ignorant would be a gross understatement."
"For him to downplay the indisputable, historical fact that enslaved Black people were treated less a person’s worth both in law and in practice is offensive and beneath the dignity of our state legislature," Carter said in a statement.
Hanks told The Associated Press that video of his comments was manipulated to make a point he didn’t make.
“It built the union by having such a compromise. Abhorrent as we may see it in today’s terms, it took a civil war, 80 years later to settle the issue,” Hanks said.
He said he was responding to Democratic Rep. Jennifer Bacon’s remarks on the civics education proposal, which would require lessons on the three branches of government, how laws are enacted and the formation and development of government at the state and federal level.
“We talk about the root of the Constitution, we talk about the values and ideals in them, but I have to say as someone who was recognized as three-fifths, we do need to understand each other when we talk about these things,” Bacon said.
“At the end of the day, we have to understand how rules and policies affect everyone — whether I could be considered a full whole person, as a woman be allowed to vote, as a black woman be allowed to vote without paying," she added.
Hanks called her statements “wholly false" and said "the three-fifths issue is long settled.”
“She is five-fifths in today’s society. I am five-fifths. You are five-fifths. And that was my point. And the point was to kind of talk about the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, not 2021," Hanks said.
Asked about his comments on Rep. Lynch’s name, Hanks said he figured the lawmaker was embarrassed that Hanks was called by the wrong name “so I was trying to put him at ease.”
“But it did make a very interesting confluence for racists and baiters to turn it into an opportunity to create a little more strife and division,” he said.
Hanks came under scrutiny from other members of the Legislature for marching from then-President Donald Trump's rally in Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Capitol before rioters stormed the building on Jan. 6.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.