Tennessee is continuing a dangerous trend — the GOP’s silencing of minority voices
Lucas Gonzalez (PPS ‘24)
In the wake of March’s horrific shooting at The Covenant School, I followed the news cycle’s grim, yet all too familiar coverage of the tragedy. First came the breaking news updates and usual reactions among politicians: calls for gun control on the left and cries over mental health and school security concerns on the right. Thoughts and prayers were offered, protests were scheduled, and people slowly moved on to focus on other issues. But the Covenant shooting stood out right from the start as conservative politicians and media pundits focused on the shooter’s transgender identity, another round of ammunition to fuel the right’s ongoing battle against trans rights. As the dust settled, it became clear how the Republican Party’s response to Americans’ growing fear represents their strategy in a battle to silence the voices of the country’s minority voices.
Days after the Nashville shooting, three Tennessee lawmakers, Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson joined hundreds of protesters marching to the State Capitol, demanding the passage of gun-control legislation. Once inside, the three lawmakers walked to the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn, chanting “No action, no peace” among agitated Republicans. No protesters were granted entry into the chamber, and no laws were broken. Yet immediately following the protest, Tennessee House Republicans called for a vote of expulsion on the lawmakers for violating the House’s rules of conduct.
The trio did acknowledge that they violated conduct rules — that is not where the controversy lies. Expulsion from the house is historically a very serious undertaking. Only eight lawmakers have ever been expelled from the Tennessee House, six of whom were Confederates, one of whom was convicted of bribery, and another who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct. The trio’s act of protest, lasting no longer than a minute, was compared to “an act of mutiny.” After the votes were counted, only Reps. Jones and Pearson were expelled, while Rep. Johnson remained. Jones and Pearson are young Black men in their twenties, while Johnson is an older white woman.
The aftermath of such a vote immediately grew criticism and accusations of racist behavior, as House Republicans justified the outcome by stating that Jones and Pearson were inciting a riot while Johnson, although raising her fist in solidarity, did not touch the bullhorn. Republican’s action against Jones and Pearson not only signals a refusal to engage with dissenting opinions but also underscores the need to silence and shut them out. The Tennessee House is dominated by older, white, Republican lawmakers. Jones and Pearson represent two of the state’s most urban, diverse districts, and their opposing rhetoric, backed by hundreds of protestors and thousands across the state, is a threat to the GOP’s status quo.
Republicans are at a moment of existential crisis. While they remain immensely powerful, entrenched in most of the country’s democratic institutions, their trademark populist support has stagnated, and the party’s poster child of a new conservative era, former President Trump, has just been indicted on 34 felony charges. The logic is simple. If the party is struggling to gain momentum from its supporters, the solution is to diminish the support and influence of the opposition. The time for covert action has passed; the party has already been criticized for propagating voter suppression, particularly in the wake of the 2020 election. Now former Fox News host Tucker Carlson preached to millions of viewers, stating that Rep. Pearson spoke “like a sharecropper” and was only admitted to college because he was Black. Tennessee demonstrates the GOP’s very real capability to snuff out flames of dissent in their areas of influence.
Take a look at the state of Florida, where it seems that nearly every week Governor Ron DeSantis adds a cinderblock to his wall of “anti-woke” legislation in the school system, including the total gutting and restricting of New College, the passage of the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the rejection of AP African American Studies courses. Attacks on minorities are only growing more overt and more aggressive.
But now is not the time to submit and accept these blows — we should let these attacks serve as motivation to keep pressing forward. Reps. Jones and Pearson were nearly unanimously reinstated to the State House and are now household names. America’s diverse population, its communities of color, and its younger generations are tired of that status quo that the Republican party clings to. Let us prove that we can continue to fight for as long as it takes.
Lucas Gonzalez (PPS ‘24) is from Atlanta, GA and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.