Expulsion of Black Tennessee lawmakers highlights failure of U.S. ‘democracy’


The Republican-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives voted on April 6 to expel two Black Democratic legislators, Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, for participation in a gun-control protest. The House came one vote short of expelling a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, who is white. The ouster of Jones and Pearson from the legislature throws into sharp relief the failures of “democracy” in the United States.

(As we go to press, officials in the two representatives’ home counties are deciding whether to appoint Jones and Pearson to temporarily return to their seats in the legislature until a special election can be organized.)

The plight of the “Tennessee 3” is only the latest sign of contempt towards democratic norms by bourgeois politicians in the U.S. Officially, the cause for expulsion was due to the representatives’ participation in a protest that briefly disrupted Tennessee House proceedings. This fig-leaf of a justification becomes even more inadequate when we consider that part of the reason for the protest was that the expelled representatives routinely had their microphones cut-off or were otherwise denied the opportunity to speak normally in House sessions leading up to the protest. Moreover, several white Republican representatives faced relatively light repercussions for the significantly more serious infractions of child molestation and domestic violence.

While the expulsion of two young, Black representatives by a white supermajority is a dramatically racist and undemocratic act, it belies even more serious perversions of democracy. In Tennessee, as in many states, aggressive gerrymandering disempowers Black and working-class voters, and is compounded by other anti-democratic controls (with bipartisan approval), such as the disenfranchisement of those convicted of a felony, the denial of voting rights or legal protections to immigrants who make up a significant portion of the country’s working class, and more mundane obstacles to registration and physically voting. While the Tennessee Republican majority’s actions overstep the battered norms of the last few decades of U.S. politics and thus has sparked an outpour of controversy, the actual disempowerment of voters runs much, much deeper.

Before he was ejected from the legislature, Rep. Jones called attention to Tennessee’s “dark history” of Jim Crow racism. “What you’re really showing for the world is holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots,” he said. “A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing two of the youngest Black representatives and one of the only Democratic women in this body. That’s what this is about, let us be real today.” Striking a similar note, Rep. Gloria Johnson referred to the fact that she avoided being expelled by saying, “It might have to do with the color of my skin.”

Unfortunately, most Democrats have demurred to call the incident racism, deflecting their criticisms to say that “[they] don’t know what’s in [their] colleagues’ hearts” or otherwise indicating that naming their counterparts’ very obvious act of racism would get in the way of “working together.” Similarly, Joe Biden declared that the expulsions are “without precedent”, ignoring the long history of violent white insurgency against Black representation in the wake of Reconstruction, followed by the legal imposition of Jim Crow laws, as well as the more innocuous but no-less-devastating forms of disenfranchisement that continue alive and well to this day.

The Biden administration’s unwillingness to name out-and-open racism, and its willingness to feign ignorance of racism in U.S. history, is not surprising. After all, Democratic Party politicians have demonstrated time and again that they have little interest in backing progressive reforms; they are primarily interested in promising just enough to the masses to be re-elected to office. And at times, their objectives are so conservative, cowardly, and anti-worker that they will abandon promises of reforms even when doing so hurts their ability to win reelection. They cannot challenge gerrymandering or the other myriad ways that U.S. politics are fundamentally undemocratic because they themselves are the beneficiaries of this system. Even as their Republican counterparts openly declare war against them, the Democrats keep vainly promising to look for compromise, and the points of compromise only move further and further to the right.

News pundits often talk about “red states” and “blue states” as if there were a fundamental demographic and cultural divide in American politics, with two dueling views of society. The idea that “red states” are a product of inborn cultural conservatism, however, is a pure fantasy. The right-wing profile of these states in national politics is the direct product of intentional policies to disenfranchise the racialized and poor. Moreover, these policies are so deeply entrenched at the local, state, and constitutional level that there is no possibility of legally challenging them within the framework of the current U.S. government.

Fighting for an antiracist, socialist society requires us to break with the rigged game of bipartisan politics. We need to break free of the Democrats and their shortsighted, self-centered, bourgeois policies, and to fight for the working-class, internationalist revolution that is needed to save our planet from tyranny and devastation.

Photo: Rep. Justin Pearson (left) and Rep. Justin Jones (center) at Fisk University on April 7. (George Walker IV / AP)


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