I’ve been a Black person in this country for 44 years. There is very little about racism that still surprises me. Indeed, being able to anticipate what racist white folks will do next is an essential survival skill: “Surprise” is a luxury I cannot afford when I am so often the only Black person in a room.
And yet I found myself in absolute, gaping shock at the actions of Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives in early April. After three Democrats—Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson, and Gloria Johnson—led demonstrations against gun violence from the House floor in the wake of the Nashville elementary school shooting, the Republican-controlled chamber moved to expel the trio for breaching rules of decorum. By all metrics, attempting to remove duly elected representatives for nonviolent protest was a brazen attack on democracy. The fact that the targeted members were two people of color and a woman made the motivations of the white male ruling class of the chamber suspect. But when the expulsion votes came down, Republicans managed to pierce whatever thin veneer of fairness existed in the process: The Tennessee House kicked out Jones and Pearson, who are both Black, but retained Johnson, who is white. All three had committed the same made-up infraction. All three had locked arms and were prepared to be martyred together. But the Republicans kicked out the two Black guys and left the white woman. Watching it happen in real time felt like watching a CGI-enhanced dramatization of racism rather than a C-SPAN broadcast of real life.
And the Republicans knew it. Since the debacle, leaked audio revealed members of the Republican caucus getting angry at Representative Jody Barrett, the man who voted to keep Johnson but boot the two Justins. The other Republicans bemoaned that their actions were being called racist and accused Barrett of bringing “the racism into it because you didn’t stay with us.”
The audio provides plenty of opportunity for schadenfreude as Republicans fume over the consequences of their actions. It’s not the racism they were concerned about, only the fact that their actions were (correctly) perceived as racist. They didn’t like the optics of it. At one point, Representative Scott Cepicky told Barrett that he should have voted against Johnson even if he didn’t think Johnson was at fault. “You got to do what’s right,” Cepicky said, “even if you think it’s wrong.”
But the audio also shows something more sinister than the “let’s just do the racism and be legends” ethos of the Tennessee Republican Party. Cepicky declared, “We are fighting for the republic of our country right now. And the world is staring at us—are we going to stand our ground?” Then he added: “I’m going to have to swallow this—seeing Mr. Jones back up here walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in. And watch them disrespect this fucking state that I chose to move to. And by golly, it’s got to stop.”
Cepicky, a failed NFL prospect and former minor league baseball player, is giving voice to what seems like a common Republican thought: Democrats, and Black Democrats in particular, do not have a right to participate in the governing of our country. Jones, of course, has every right to walk the hallowed halls where Tennesseans who got their asses kicked by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman once walked. Cepicky has neither the right nor (apparently) the athleticism to “stand his ground” and “stop” him. And yet he feels entitled to. He feels that the state (he moved to) was made for him and not for Jones, Pearson, or the people of Tennessee who voted for them.
I’m not the only one to draw comparisons between the behavior of Tennessee Republicans and the behavior of Tennessee Confederates. Jones himself, after he heard the audio, told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “It was very surreal to hear that, to hear the commentary, and to realize that for them they really are reenacting the Civil War. You heard Representative Cepicky say, ‘We need to come hard against them, because if we don’t, Tennessee will fall and the Southeast will fall and the left will take over’…. I mean, we’re dealing with people who want to reenact the Civil War.”
That’s the racism that takes your breath away. It’s not merely the optics of racism, not the moral incongruity of punishing Black people for protesting against school shootings. It’s the idea that the Black people of Tennessee, who have already had their voting power largely gerrymandered away, shouldn’t even have the right to elect their own state representatives. That’s the animus that motivated the Republicans’ actions.
Those actions are, for the moment, futile. Jones and Pearson were reinstated by their districts within a week. The shambolic proceedings against them merely served to raise their profile to a national level. The whole country is now aware of two Black guys in the Tennessee House minority who are fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds.
The whole country also received an object lesson in “critical race theory” from Tennessee’s Republican supermajority. Tennessee is one of the states that passed aggressive laws banning the teaching of how structural racism affects legal and political decisions (an effort led by Cepicky, of course), but the actions against the Justins explained CRT better than any lecturer could. Expelling two members, who were likely to be reinstated anyway, and making them famous for protesting the murder of children makes no sense—unless you appreciate how racism motivates people to do crude (and cruel) things.
Still, there will likely be no electoral consequences for Barrett, Cepicky, Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (who organized the expulsion but doesn’t even live in the district he represents), or any of the other Tennessee House Republicans. That’s because too many of the white voters who put them there share their racist views. Too many of them agree that people who look like Jones and Pearson should be stopped. Too many of them also have to swallow hard and bite their tongues whenever they see a Black man walking around Tennessee free—and empowered.
That’s the part that doesn’t surprise me. I’m used to white folks acting like this, but I guess I can still be surprised when they put it on tape.