Wisconsin lawmakers spent Tuesday and Wednesday embroiled in a debate over how to commemorate Black History Month — specifically, whether to include former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on a list of African-Americans being honored by the Legislature.
Wednesday's Senate session marked the second day this week and the second consecutive year in Wisconsin that some white Republicans have clashed with members of the Legislature's Black Caucus over how to honor Black History Month.
The Legislature's Black Caucus is composed entirely of Democrats. There are no black Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature.
Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature objected to including Kaepernick, who, during his NFL career protested racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before games, in a list of African-Americans being honored for having "made measurable differences in their respective industries."
Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and lived in Fond du Lac as a young child. He is no longer playing in the NFL, but other players have joined the protest movement since.
"Wisconsin white Republicans told not only (the Assembly), but this body and the entire country that a white Republican legislator, that they’re best suited to decide for African-Americans what we should value, who we should honor," said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon.
Taylor and Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, are the only black members of the state Senate. Six black lawmakers serve in the state Assembly, five of whom represent Milwaukee and one who represents Dane County.
The Senate voted Wednesday afternoon on party lines to reject the resolution as written by the Legislative Black Caucus — with Kaepernick's name included — with Democrats supporting the resolution and Republicans opposing it. The Senate voted again on party lines to approve the amended resolution without Kaepernick's name, with Democrats opposing it.
"You don’t have to understand," Taylor told Republicans in defense of Kaepernick. "It’s not your lens. It’s not your story. It’s ours. Who are you to deny our reality?"
No Republicans in the Senate obliged when Taylor asked them to yield to a question, but Assembly Republicans said Tuesday they felt the entire Legislature should be in agreement on any individuals honored by the resolution.
"Colin Kaepernick is obviously a controversial figure," Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke R-Kaukauna, told reporters Tuesday.
After hours of disagreement and negotiation on Tuesday, lawmakers in the Assembly compromised by approving an amended resolution that did not include Kaepernick's name. Assembly Democrats voted against the amendment excluding Kaepernick, but then voted with Republicans to approve the resolution.
Also on Tuesday, Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, told reporters she was not responsible for a tweet sent from her account during the debate over Kaepernick, which read, "Colin Kapernick wore socks depicting police as pigs. Flags are flying at half-staff for a murdered policeman. Are you kidding me????" The tweet was deleted shortly after it was posted, and Dittrich said she believed it had been sent by her legislative aide, Keith Best. Best drew fire last year for sending a tweet from another legislator's account directed at Taylor's account calling voter ID opponents "the true racists."
"(Kaepernick) has protested questionable shootings and the loss of African-American lives at the hands of law enforcement. Is it that you don’t believe that happens or that you believe it’s OK?" Taylor asked her colleagues.
Earlier on Wednesday, some Democrats — including all Assembly members of the Legislative Black Caucus — requested to have their votes on the resolution changed to a "no." The changes will be noted in the session record, but per Assembly rules, the official tally will remain unanimous.
No Republicans who opposed Kaepernick's inclusion spoke during the Senate debate on the resolution.
Johnson chided her Republican colleagues for not speaking during the debate and noted that she and Taylor, the only black lawmakers in the Senate, both represent Milwaukee.
"Race relations should not be something that has to be taught from the Senate floor," Johnson said. "We all represent the same amount of constituents, and you can’t tell me that black people don’t live in your district, because I know that they do. And you cant tell me that the only African-Americans who deserve to sit in these seats have to come from Dane County and Milwaukee County."
Others honored in the resolution include Lucien H. Palmer, Wisconsin's first black legislator; Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Wisconsin's first black Superintendent of Public Instruction; Foundation for Black Women's Wellness founder Lisa Peyton-Caire and Beloit native and NFL coach Jim Caldwell.
This is the second year in a row that Wisconsin lawmakers have struggled to agree on how to honor Black History Month.
Last year, Taylor and Reps. Jason Fields and David Crowley authored a resolution to designate February as Black History Month in Wisconsin and to honor contributions from 14 prominent black Wisconsinites. But Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, argued the resolution should honor all black Wisconsinites, not just a select few. The Assembly eventually voted on two separate resolutions.
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