Tennessee Republicans just demonstrated they care more about upholding white supremacy and silencing Black voices than dealing with gun violence

OPINION: Republicans were more interested in expelling two Black lawmakers — but not the white woman — for protesting gun violence on the House floor than addressing the Nashville school shooting that spurred the protest in the first place.

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I know “not all white people”; it’s y’all with your selective offense about the phrase “white people” that make these discussions difficult, and it’s ironic because white people made it all about race from the very beginning. 

Now, let’s begin.

Thursday, Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones — both Black Democrats — were expelled from the Tennessee House by the GOP majority after they participated in an anti-gun protest on the chamber floor the week before. The protest was in response to a recent shooting at a Nashville school in which six people, including three children, were killed by a former student of the school.

To be clear, Pearson, Jones and their fellow Democrat, Gloria Johnson, acknowledged that they broke chamber rules when they approached the podium and yelled anti-gun chants through a bullhorn. 

GOP members of the state House tried to liken the peaceful protest to an “insurrection” because if nothing else, they are going to be overly dramatic when it’s anyone other than them protesting. House Speaker Cameron Sexton is quoted as saying the demonstration was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol which, as noted by The Tennessean, left a protester “dead, many police officers injured and millions of dollars of property damaged.”

Sexton would later backtrack his statements and claim that he did not intend to conflate the two entirely different incidents even though those were the exact words out of his mouth. 

I make a note of that because it’s important to understand how whiteness plays a part here — and it indeed plays a huge part.

In the eyes of whiteness, everything Black people do — even when white people like Johnson are right alongside them — is a million times worse than anything a white person can do. Whether it’s a Black person standing up for themselves or speaking out on racial injustice or leading a peaceful demonstration against guns, they are the worst to ever do the worst, and this is the worst thing white people have ever seen and, oh my god, white hysteria help us, white baby Jesus!!!

Democratic state Reps. Justin Pearson, center, of Memphis and Justin Jones, right, of Nashville attend the vote in which they were expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

To be clear, when Pearson, Jones, and Johnson led protesters in chants in the House chamber, no property was damaged; no one was injured; and there were no arrests made. The gathered crowd never even got on the House floor; only Pearson, Jones, and Johnson approached the podium. 

Yes, they disrupted House business, but as I have said before, protest is not supposed to make you feel comfortable. It is supposed to disrupt. It is supposed to interrupt. If they scheduled it for a friendly time to make everyone comfortable, who would hear them? 

Both Pearson and Jones are young, outspoken Black men. Jones is 27, and Pearson is 28. Together, they are the two youngest members of the Tennessee House, so you know that’s already a problem for some of the older white people in the room. Pearson has previously been attacked in the House for wearing a dashiki to his swearing-in ceremony.  

They are both loud and outspoken on issues of race, and that has ruffled some feathers in the state House. 

Thursday, Rep. Sabi Kumar, who is Indian American,  said to Jones, “You look at everything through the lens of race. You should join the House, become one of us…make a transformation to be a representative.” 

The quiet part of that message is whiteness is the rule here, and if you aren’t performing for the white gaze and white approval, then you are a problem.

Or, to put it another way, WHITE PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT US!!!!!

Jones responded to Kumar and said, “The statement and recommendation of Rep. Kumar was that I would not be up for expulsion if I just assimilated, if I just conformed, if I just confined myself as he has done to be accepted by this body.”

And boom. Now the quiet part was said out loud. 

It was said even louder once the votes were counted. Both Pearson and Jones were expelled while seven GOP members of the state House voted against their party when it came to Johnson (who is white!!!!!), thereby sparing her from expulsion. 

Read it again.

Read it again.

Read it again.

Because at the end of the day, even when you do something you aren’t supposed to do, white is right, and white is going to defend white even when it means looking like a hypocrite. 

Johnson was guilty of the same thing as Pearson and Jones, yet members of the GOP, the entire other side of the aisle from her, couldn’t bring themselves to vote her out. They only voted out the Black men. 

In another instance of tone policing a Black man, state Rep. Andrew Farmer — who sponsored the resolution to expel the reps. — told Pearson, “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. If you want to conduct business in this house, file a bill.”

Pearson was eloquent in his words at the podium, giving off an aura and a spirit reminiscent of the great Martin Luther King Jr., when he said, “I believe I’m in the well today because you have put forward a resolution that says that it’s more important to expel voices of dissent than do the work of justice, which is fighting to end gun violence in the state of Tennessee. I believe that I’m in the well today because I, with the courage of ancestors and family and loved ones and community, stood up and spoke up for folks like my classmate Larry Thorn who can speak no more because of the proliferation of guns in Tennessee.

“I believe that I’m in the well today because you have decided that it is not right to have debate, that it is not right to listen to the voices of the minority. I believe I’m in the well today because, on the day that we wanted to honor the thousands of people who protested, we were denied that opportunity. I believe I am here because you feel in your heart that it is right to persecute someone who has committed no crime, who has only broken what you call a House decorum rule, which according to Section 19 of the House Permanent Rules of Order says at worst, the thing that should happen is censure, but instead, you have brought forward a terrible resolution to deprive and disenfranchise thousands of people in Shelby County of a representative who will and can speak and advocate for them, and I believe, Rep. Farmer that that is wrong.”

Whew. 

He called it all out. His speech after he was expelled was even more poignant, reminiscent of the speeches delivered by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Except this isn’t 1968. Jim Crow isn’t the law of the land anymore. This is 2023, and in some ways, the country feels as though it is sliding backward to a time when the voices of Black and marginalized people, in general, were repeatedly silenced by the power of whiteness and white supremacy. 

The Tennessee GOP can deny that race played a part in this all they want, but the evidence is clear. That they couldn’t come to a consensus to expel all three and instead spared the white woman while sacrificing the two young Black men is saying it louder than anything else they can babble into a microphone. 

Your hoods are showing, and we see them. 

Even Gloria Johnson went on record saying she believed race played a part in her being spared. 

This was nothing more than shutting down Black voices and maintaining the (white) status quo. 

It sets a dangerous precedent because the entire country is watching, and if they can do this in Tennessee, where else will they try it? 

I salute the Tennessee Three for taking a stand. I salute Justin Pearson and Justin Jones for refusing to assimilate.

We should all be raising our Black fists in the air because this is active racism out loud, and it should not stand.


Monique Judge is a storyteller, content creator and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a word nerd who is a fan of the Oxford comma, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has more graphic t-shirts than you. Follow her on Twitter @thejournalista or check her out at moniquejudge.com.

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