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Power, race, and fragile democracy in Tennessee

Both Justins' — Jones and Pearson — have returned to the Tennessee statehouse. They once again represent the people in Memphis and Nashville who elected them.

However temporary, the expulsion of two Black state legislators was both unprecedented and history repeating itself.

For some, it conjured Julian Bond, the civil rights leader elected to the Georgia house of Representatives in 1965, initially denied his seat by white legislators because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. For others it echoed an earlier moment in Georgia, when in 1868 white legislators expelled all 33 Black lawmakers from the governing body.

Three legislators in Tennessee were on the chopping block. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was spared expulsion by just one vote. Same behavior. Two different outcomes.

It was a stark example of how threats to democracy are, and have always been, rooted and wrapped up in race and racism, says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of race, history, and public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

"This should be yet another wake-up call to Americans who believe in justice, who believe in fairness, who believe in democracy," says Muhammad. "To recognize that our system is fundamentally failing and broken at this moment, and race and racism are the key wedges and levers to pull it apart."

The "R" word was on trial

The racist optics of expelling two young Black men and saving the white woman was not lost on Republican legislators, as captured in audio of a private conversation that was leaked to and released by the digital news outlet Tennessee Holler.

In the audio, Republican Rep. Jason Zachary accused fellow Republican Jody Barrett, whose lone vote saved Johnson, of throwing the others under the bus.

"I've listened for the last three days to Democrats trash us as racists," Zachary says in the recording, specifically listing off the names of three Black Democratic legislators. "All I have heard from them is how this is the most racist place, one of them used white supremacy. Good lord, we have to realize they are not our friends," he says.

The idea that being called a racist is the worst thing you can be called — especially if you are white — is itself a long standing tactic of deflection, says Carol Anderson, chair of African American studies at Emory College.

"Part of what the Civil Rights Movement did was to make 'racism' bad," she says — at least the appearance of racism. She says now you get this protest whenever racism is called out, "oh no, you called me a racist." Anderson says this makes it seem as if the real harm is in being called racist, rather than in actual racism.

Take the words of another Republican representative caught on the tape, Scott Cepicky. "I've been called a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist more in the last two months in my life, than I have in my entire life," he says.

"By golly, I'm biting my tongue," he went on. Referring to the reappointment of Rep. Jones to the legislature, "I'm going to have to swallow this to see Mr. Jones back up here, walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in, and watch them disrespect this state."

He did not say what words he had to bite his tongue to stifle. He did not mention what phrases or thoughts he was swallowing or what specifically it is about the young Black legislator that disrespects the history of the statehouse.

Representation rose over erasure

Only expelling the two Black legislators may have surfaced the racism at work in the Tennessee statehouse, but racism and discrimination were also lurking just beneath, according to political scientists, historians and activists on the ground.

"We've been screaming at the top of our lungs for twenty years that there is deep-seated racism for Black and brown communities here," says Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

There was something powerful, she says, about seeing it so blatantly and clearly laid out, for so many to witness.

Put aside which two legislators were temporarily expelled, says Carol Anderson. Instead look at what voters were represented by the three targeted representatives. "Those three legislators represent 'the other,'" she says.

Rep. Justin Pearson's district in Memphis is 61.1 % Black. Rep. Justin Jones' district in Nashville is 30.9 % Black and 24 % Hispanic. Rep. Gloria Johnson's district is 58.2 % Black.

Targeting the three for an apparently minor, at least by comparison, rules violation "is a way of calling them — and by extension the votes of the people they represent — illegitimate," Anderson says.

This is all part of a larger pattern, says Luna. "We often say we're not a red state, we're a gerrymandered state."

Gerrymandering by Republicans in power has significantly watered down the votes of Black people and other people of color, through redrawn maps that help secure a Republican supermajority, even as the state demographics — and politics — shift.

"A country that is growing in its majority population of non-whites," Khalil Gibran Muhammad says, "has compelled the Republican Party to engage in unconstitutional practices of one kind or another in an effort to retain and or grab as much power as they can."

Rules seemed to live alongside rage

Racism was also coursing through the words spoken and the tone taken towards the two young Black legislators, says Carol Anderson. She says the formal rules of the expulsion hearings barely concealed a simmering rage on the part of white legislators.

"White rage is all about putting you back in your place," Anderson says.

"White rage demands that people of color, and women, stay in their place in the racial structure and the patriarchal structure," she says.

Take the way Rep. Andrew Farmer addressed Justin Pearson, his hands shaking with emotion. "Just because you don't get your way, you can't come to the well, bring your friends, and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn," he told Pearson. "It doesn't give you the right to enrage folks that are here."

"That's why you are standing there, because of that temper tantrum that day, that yearning to have attention, well you're getting it now," he said to the young Black man.

What Pearson wanted, he told Farmer in response, was to be able to speak for his constituents, many of them young people who had descended onto the state capitol after yet another mass shooting, to demand that politicians do something about gun violence.

"He called a peaceful protest a temper tantrum," Pearson said. "Is elevating our voices for justice or change a temper tantrum?"

The real offense, Pearson said, was not in breaking the rules of decorum. The real offense was that "we asserted our dignity as equal members of this body who you would rather have silenced, who you would rather not hear, who you would rather have back somewhere else, instead of up here as your equal."

Their real offense, according to Pearson, was they refused to assimilate.

Assimilation was challenged

The unwritten rules of assimilation to a space that had been run by, and for, mostly white men, was not just raised in the conversations between the young Black activists and white Republicans. It also came up in an exchange between Rep. Justin Jones and an Indian American Republican, Rep. Sabi Kumar.

"You look at everything through the lens of race," Kumar said to Jones. "Those are your experiences, and that's perfectly understandable. But sincerely, after becoming elected, you should be celebrating. You really should be. You should join the House, become one of us."

"That's what this is really about," Jones said in response, that he should "just assimilate."

"This is a very old and effective strategy of evoking a model minority myth where people should be grateful for access" to power, says Harvard's Muhammad.

The suggestion is that proximity to power is enough, that "people of color should come in and follow the rules, but the truth is, the rules were stacked against them from the beginning."

Both Pearson and Jones, alongside other Black legislators have spoken up about being systemically silenced on the statehouse floor. They have said it was either break the rules, or never be allowed to speak at all.

Rather than forcefully filtering everything through the lens of race, Muhammad says, "race always matters," even when people who are Black and brown deny its pervasive power.

Kumar also accused Jones of calling him a "brown face." He said that it was the first time he had ever encountered a racial slur in his 53 years in America.

"I told you what you just exhibited as the only member of their caucus who is not of the Caucasian persuasion," Jones clarified in response. "I said that you put a brown face on white supremacy."

As for never hearing a racial slur, Jones pointed out that just a few weeks prior, another Republican representative "recommended that we should bring back lynching." Jones was referring to Rep. Paul Sherell's comments that the death penalty should include "hanging by tree."

Lynching was a form of racial terror that was used extensively throughout the South to kill and control Black people.

A blueprint for tackling democracy

For Lisa Sherman Luna, whose organization, TIRRC, worked to register and turn out voters of color in Tennessee, what is happening in the state shows the great extremes Republicans are willing to go to establish what she calls "white minority rule."

"The rest of the country should be very deeply alarmed, because this is 100% the blueprint for tackling the vision that we have of our multiracial pluralistic democracy," she says.

It may be a blueprint for an anti-democratic push to maintain power, especially white power, but what is happened in Tennessee is also a blueprint for something else. That is, if you believe the words of Justin Pearson, spoken in his defense on the floor of the Tennessee legislature.

"The news for you and for every member in this legislative body is that this country is changing in magnificent ways," he told the body. "That the diversity of the state of Tennessee is changing in magnificent ways, that the voices and the people who are protesting aren't just Black folk, it ain't just white folk, ain't just rich folk or poor folk," Pearson said.

"It is a multiracial coalition built on a solidarity dividend that can break any institution that refuses to change."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.
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