Updated 4/08/2023 at 6 a.m.
Vice President Kamala Harris rushed to Nashville, Tenn., for an emergency meeting with Representatives Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones. The urgency is warranted: in an unprecedented move, Tennessee lawmakers voted to expel the two Black lawmakers from the state house, effectively disenfranchising tens of thousands of Tennessee voters. However, the reason for the meeting goes a lot deeper than just one statehouse.
The Root spoke with Ohio State University Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who warned that Republicans are likely to use Tennessee as a playbook to disenfranchise Black Americans across the country.
What Does This Mean for Black People in Tennessee?
Jeffries says that as disturbing as the decision to remove these democratically-elected lawmakers from the statehouse is, this isn’t coming entirely out of left field.
“I was shocked but not surprised,” Jeffries told The Root, who teaches race and history. “Because of the trajectory of GOP politics over the last decade and knowing the history in places like Tennessee dating back to the Reconstruction Era.”
During the Reconstruction Era, white supremacist Democrats would use similar tactics to expel Black lawmakers who’d briefly gained political power after the Civil War, Jeffries explained. Today, GOP lawmakers have typically used more subtle ways—like gerrymandering—to disenfranchise Black Americans and other marginalized groups, he says. It’s worth noting that Pearson’s district is 31 percent Black and Jones’ district is 61 percent Black, which means that the decision disproportionately disenfranchised Black voters.
“It’s not like African Americans haven’t been effectively disenfranchised,” Jeffries said. “The difference is they’re taking it to the next level and saying we’re not even gonna pretend as though you have a voice, right? We’re just going to completely say you do not have one, and we do not care.”
Vice President Kamala Harris Travels to Tennessee
Harris has also taken note of the severity of what happened in Tennessee.
In her passionate speech at Fisk University, she said “A democracy says you don’t silence the people. You do not stifle the people, you don’t turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty.”
She visited the expelled lawmakers and made remarks touching on two things, renewing calls to ban gun control and high-capacity magazines and Democracy. “Let’s not fall for the false choice, which suggests that you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws, we can and should do both,” Harris said at the Fisk University chapel.
Talking to young leaders, she said “This issue is going to require your leadership.’’
Speaking of the two Black lawmakers who were expelled and the one white one who barely skated by, Harris said “It wasn’t about the three of these leaders. It was about who they were representing. It’s about whose voices they were channeling. Understand that – and is that not what a democracy allows?”
Republicans Are Likely to Use the Tennessee Playbook
The obvious next concern is whether other Republican led-state legislatures will take note of what happened in Tennessee. According to Jeffries, we’re justified in being worried.
“I can guarantee you that we will see something similar in similar places going forward,” he said. “That is a bad precedent.”
Whether it’s anti-Democratic measures to ban women’s rights, decrease voting rights, or censor what can be taught in schools, “when one red state does it, the others will follow,” Jeffries said.
He also noted that the laws in Tennessee are not unique, and we could see this being done on a national scale. “Don’t be surprised if we see this when you have either Black legislators or progressive legislators trying to amplify their voice,” he said. “In one way or another, rules will be used to silence them.”