Tennessee vs. democracy

Tennessee vs. democracy April 10, 2023

This story from Tennessee was the biggest news of last week: “Tennessee House Republicans expel 2 young Black Democrats for gun protests after Covenant School shooting.”

The Tennessee House’s youngest Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis — who are both Black — have been expelled from the chamber for their participation in gun control protests last week on the House floor. Meanwhile, Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, narrowly escaped the same fate.

The body deliberated Thursday for more than six hours about whether to expel the so-called Tennessee Three, capping off an acrimonious two weeks at the statehouse following the Covenant School shooting.

Jones, Johnson and Pearson faced sanctions for breaking House rules on decorum among other violations.

The Tennessee Three did, apparently, break House rules on decorum — as seen on the cell-phone video provided by a white Republican member of the Tennessee House, whose recording of said video was also an equal violation of those same rules. Those rules provide for sanctions including official condemnation and censure, but not for expulsion. Kicking Jones and Pearson out of the legislature, effectively disenfranchising the voters who sent them there, would thus also be a violation of the same rules white Tennessee legislators were pretending to be so fiercely protecting.

But those white Tennessee Republicans are very, very bad at pretending.

This was a stark, obvious, and overt example of Jim Crow white politics. Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Jordan Justin Pearson were not expelled from Tennessee’s legislature because they encouraged the thousands of protesters who were demanding action after a school shooting left seven dead in Nashville. Nor were they expelled because of any violation of rules of “decorum.” They were expelled because the white Republicans controlling Tennessee’s state legislature do not regard Black representatives or the voters who elect them to be legitimate participants in the state’s white Herrenvolk “democracy.”

Jones and Pearson were expelled because they are Black and because they act as though they and their white counterparts in the legislature are equals. This infuriates those white Republicans. It sends them into a frenzy in which they appear to be unable to think or to speak clearly.

Seeing that white rage on full display last week was a wonder to behold. We do not have video recordings of the Klan-controlled legislatures of the 1870s expelling duly elected Black representatives, but we got to see what that looked like in all of its hideous and monstrously stupid glory.

A string of white Republican representatives rushed before the cameras, apparently eager to expose themselves as clownishly racist, tongue-tied, rage-addled stereotypes. They either did not know or did not care that this is how they appeared. Each of these half-wits — House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Rep. Andrew Farmer, Rep. Gino Bulso, Rep. Ryan D. Williams — lined up for their turn to be repudiated and humiliated by their younger, smarter, calmer colleagues in a spectacle that was both fascinating and appalling. As each, in turn, had their feckless would-be “gotcha” claims turned back into their own face I found myself both cheering and shouting “Sweet Jesus, man, stay down!

What everyone watching clearly saw was that Jones and Pearson are men of integrity driven by a desire to do and to say what is best for their constituents. And what everyone watching also clearly saw was that Sexton, Farmer, Bulso and Williams were not that — that these white men were patently unqualified to serve as representatives of the people. The contrast between the intelligence, decency, morality, and commitment to democracy evidenced by Jones and Pearson and the utter lack of all of those among their white interlocutors was a sight to behold. And the fact that those incompetent, smirking white Republicans seemed incapable of understanding that only made their conduct appear more foolish.

The entire spectacle recalled the all-American words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, that Black people have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It was a reminder that Taney’s Dred Scott decision was correctly and lawfully decided according to the “covenant with death and agreement with Hell” of the pre-Reconstruction Constitution.

And it was an indication of what the law of the land is again becoming under a corrupt, “originalist” Supreme Court majority that flagrantly disregards the Reconstruction Amendments, creating and overturning laws based on the premise that they do not exist.

What we saw in the Tennessee House last week was a confirmation of Wilhoit’s Law, the observation by composer Frank Wilhoit that:

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

There is nothing more or else to it, and there never has been, in any place or time.

In some forms of conservatism, these in-groups and out-groups are implicit, inferred from complex presumed hierarchies based on religion or tradition or convention. But in Tennessee the line between in-group and out-group is just plain old white and Black. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson violated that conservative hierarchy by demanding that the law protect those that conservatives insist it can only bind. This was, for Tennessee’s white conservatives, an intolerable and unforgivable sin.

Another major theme of these proceedings was the utter religious and biblical illiteracy of the white Republicans.

Nearly all* of these men are Southern Baptists who have made their church-going religiosity a major part of their political identity. Southern Baptists are not part of a liturgical tradition, so the ham-fisted symbolism of conducting their sham trial during Holy Week is something they can be forgiven for failing to understand. But Southern Baptists are supposed to know their Bibles, and whoever taught these men in Sunday school or Awana or VBS had to be face-palming in embarrassment from these white legislators’ apparent unfamiliarity with the words and themes and even the cadences of scripture.

Take a look at this astonishing moment in the kangaroo-court proceedings against Rep. Justin Jones. Rep. Ryan Williams is in such white panic over the protesters’ chants of “No justice, no peace” that he can’t seem to remember where he may have heard those words before. Jones opens his Bible to remind him:

Jones quotes from Jeremiah 6:14. The same phrase is repeated in Jeremiah 8:11 and in Ezekiel 13:10. Williams — whose campaign website touts his stint as a short-term missionary — seems wholly unfamiliar with this thrice-biblical phrase.

The moment underscores the radically incompatible versions of Christianity represented by Jones and Williams. Williams’ White Jesus Southern Baptist tradition only dips into the Hebrew prophets to strip-mine the text for premillennial dispensationalist prophecy nonsense. You’ll never hear a sermon on “Peace, peace, where there is no peace” in his church. But in Jones’ church, the words of the prophets still matter and resonate. So Jones knows those words. Williams doesn’t.

That’s another reason why Jones and Pearson were expelled. These young men, speaking extemporaneously in response to their accusers’ questions in the moment, proved to be better preachers and better expositors of scripture than anything those white-Jesus Southern Baptists had ever encountered before. I suspect that scared them almost as much as the thought of having to respect the rights of Black Tennesseans.

* The exception here is Bulso, a Frank Rizzo Catholic with an almost pathological anxiety over the precariously contingent whiteness extended to Italian Catholics in Tennessee. Bulso clearly understands that his in-group status is impermanent and perpetually under review — that his whiteness will and can be revoked if he should fail to demonstrate the mandatory participation in anti-Blackness. And so he performs this anti-Blackness on command, dancing for the monkey grinder because he knows that if fails to dance as enthusiastically as required his Italian ass will wind up expelled just like Jones and Pearson.

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