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Opinion: Tennessee expulsion strike against democracy

By now, most Americans have heard and seen the callous and malicious manner in which two Tennessee lawmakers were expelled from their house seats.

The GOP-controlled Tennessee House voted to expel two of the “Tennessee 3.” That trio of Democratic lawmakers had committed the transgression of presiding over protests at the capital — with one wielding a bullhorn — demanding action on guns after the horrific mass shooting in a Nashville school that left six people dead, including three children.

Two of the three Democrats — both young, Black and representing urban areas — were ousted by overwhelmingly white and conservative majorities. The third, a white woman, narrowly survived the vote. Republicans charged them with breaking House rules of conduct.

Justin Jones, representative for Nashville, and Justin Pearson, who represented Memphis, gave rousing speeches in the chamber before the majority-white Legislature voted to oust them, leaving tens of thousands of mostly Black and brown Tennessee residents without representation.

Due to the vociferous level of outrage, the Nashville Metro Council voted Monday 36-0 to restore Jones. On Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission voted to reappoint Pearson.

Gloria Johnson represents Knoxville. When asked why she believed that she survived expulsion while her two fellow Black colleagues were expelled, Johnson candidly replied, “I’ll answer your question: it might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Rather than marginalize the politicians, the incident has turned the three lawmakers into political rockstars and martyrs. Thousands of people across the nation have poured into Nashville to demonstrate their support for Jones, Pearson and Johnson. The congressional Black caucus announced their support and have come to the defense of the trio. Vice President Kamala Harris made an urgent trip to Nashville to meet with the two Black Democratic lawmakers.

As someone who currently resides in Tennessee, the news has drawn intense and passionate debate throughout the state. There are those who see the lawmakers as “rule violators and troublemakers,” while others are fiercely supportive of the trio and offer their unwavering support. Count me in the second category.

The larger issue that emanates from this incident is the fact that racism remains a perennial fact of American life. Indeed, both Jones and Pearson made it evident how they were referred to as “uppity” by certain colleagues for daring to call out and challenge certain injustices. How they were chastised for “not accepting things the way they are,” and targeted for daring to challenge the status quo in general.

“I basically had a member call me an uppity Negro,” Jones, who is Black, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid after the 72-25 vote that expelled him.

“From the time I walked in in January, I was made to feel like I should not be welcome here because I’ve led protests here. I was arrested in this building over 14 times trying to remove a KKK statue that we finally removed from this rotunda where we’re standing,” Jones added, calling the actions of Republicans “an attack on democracy and very overt racism.”

Not surprisingly, there were those who disagreed that the expulsions had a racial nexus. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton denied that racism played a part in the Legislature’s decision to expel two Black lawmakers who protested but not the white lawmaker who also participated.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s where they’re trying to take the nation, and I appreciate you having me on to clarify this,” Sexton said on the right-wing news network Newsmax. “If you go back … all three had due process on the floor. They all were able to stand up, make statements and take questions.”

Sexton can defend the move to expel two Black lawmakers all he wants, but Jones was correct. The nation witnessed a wicked attack on democracy in Tennessee.

The truth is that number of whites are in denial about racism. A greater percentage are even more dismissive about the potential negative economic, psychological and emotional impact that it can have on the lives of Black and brown people.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. Contact him at:

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