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The Tennessee Three Explained: Racism in Politics

Youth Voices

April 09, 2023

Gun violence has been an issue in the United States for decades and has only worsened in recent years. According to Giffords Law Center, on average, about 43,000 Americans die from gun violence each year, 116 of those deaths occurring every single day. Firearms are the leading cause of death in children and teens in the United States, according to research by KFF.org. With these facts being discussed even more in politics, more is being asked by politicians to restrict access to firearms in order to keep the citizens of the US safe.

On April 6, 2023, three representatives from the state of Tennessee led a protest for gun reform on the Tennessee House floor in the wake of the recent Nashville school shooting that claimed the lives of 6, three of which were 9-year-old children. The three representatives (one white woman and two black men) took initiative by protesting against their majority conservative colleagues. However, only the two young black men were expelled.

Unfortunately, discriminatory incidents such as these aren't isolated in the political sphere and have been ongoing for years. The Tennessee Three incident unveils the deep-rooted issue of racial bias in politics that has been ignored for years and is only now being brought to light. What can lawmakers and people in power do to make politics an inclusive and safe space for all people of color, women, and queer people? First, they need to acknowledge their wrongdoings, starting with the most recent one.

The Heroic Three

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D - Knoxville), Rep. Justin Jones (D - Nashville), and Rep. Justin Pearson (D - Memphis) led a protest on the House floor against gun violence that parents and students had started in response to the Nashville shooting that had occurred only a week prior. As a result of this, their Republican colleagues (which make up a majority of the House) voted that Rep. Justin Jones & and Rep.Justin Pearson be expelled.

Rep. Pearson made this statement during a speech before his expulsion:

"We, and you, are seeking to expel District 86th's representation from this House in a country that was built on a protest," Pearson said. "In a country that was built on a protest. You, who celebrate July 4, 1776, pop fireworks and eat hot dogs, you say to protest is wrong, because you spoke out of turn. Because you spoke up for people who are marginalized.

You spoke up for children who won't ever be able to speak again. You spoke up for parents who don't want to live in fear, you spoke up for Larry Thorn, who was murdered by gun violence. You spoke up for people that we don't want to care about. In a country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn to build a nation."

-Rep. Justin Pearson

The verdict only spared Rep. Gloria Johnson by one vote, who called out her colleagues who chose to expel the other two representatives.

When asked what she thought the difference in the vote was, she stated, ”It might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Public Response

The expulsion has caused a national uproar. Many politicians have condemned the expulsion, including Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden.

“State Republican lawmakers called votes today to expel three Democratic legislators who stood in solidarity with students and families and helped lift their voices. Today’s expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent. Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee.”

-President Joe Biden

Many users on social media were quick to call out the double standards when it comes to accountability culture in politics.

For years, members of the House have done things that were swept under the rug. For instance, this House member who molested his high school students while he was a teacher and kept his seat.

Meet David. David is a Tennessee Republican who voted to expel #TenneseeThree but wait! There’s more!

David admitted to sexual abuse and apologized to a victim not realizing she was recording it. Then he lied and tried to say it didn’t happen. Why does David still have a job? pic.twitter.com/a0Lew41wL2

— Your friendly neighborhood liberal (@saltyliberal74) April 8, 2023

Another member was accused of domestic violence but was not expelled. Currently, there is a former House speaker who is under federal investigation, yet no expulsion was made.

— BrooklynDad_Defiant!☮️ (@mmpadellan) April 8, 2023

Rep. Justin Pearson also called out the hypocrisy during a press conference:

"We are losing our democracy. This is not normal, this is not ok. We broke a House rule because we were fighting for kids who were dying from gun violence. People in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry, and that leads to our expulsion? This is not democracy, this is not what it is supposed to look like."

Rep. Justin Jones stated before his House expulsion:

"We are speaking about the issues of war weapons on our streets. We call for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy. That is why the nation is watching you today.

I say to my colleagues in the other side of the aisle, that no matter what you vote, you have the votes. But you will not be victorious, because there are generations of young people who see what is going on. There are young people, that as you try to beat us down, they are rising up to take this state from the extreme forces and have sought to take away the democratic process.

Until we have action, there will be no peace and safety in our communities. Only three times in over 200 years have there been members of the House expelled. The first case was in 1866, six members were expelled for refusing to confer citizenship on formerly enslaved persons, then in 1980, one member was expelled for taking a $1,000 bribe to kill a bill in committee. In 2016, a member who much of you served with was expelled for 22 counts of sexual harassment."

In addition, many Republican representatives condemned the protest, calling it an "insurrection." Unfortunately, this isn't the first time things like this have happened in politics. Racism runs rampant in a community that is supposed to advocate for the common good. Let's look at past examples.

Past Racism in Politics

Racism has run rampant in politics for years. Tennessee was the state where the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan was founded. For instance, black people weren't permitted to vote until 1870, and once they were, they had to pay the poll tax and pass a written test, which wasn't accessible to many black people at the time. Many of them were slaves, who didn't know how to read or write.

This resulted in black people making up a minority of votes during electoral periods. Another example is Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was ousted from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, following allegations of anti-Semitism.

Omar, a black woman and Muslim (and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota) has been a repeated target of hate speech throughout her multiple terms as representative. Her Republican colleagues condemned her actions (which she had previously apologized for), but continued to support disgraced Former President Donald Trump after his anti-Semitic statements and attacking the Jewish community, and never held him accountable, nor did he himself ever apologize for his statements.

The most obvious example is that we didn’t have a black President until 2008. President Obama had to fight numerous allegations throughout his presidency questioning his nationality due to his race. Every time a person of color speaks out against injustice, we are repeatedly hushed—told that we are being too loud, too provocative, and too rambunctious.

The world needs rambunctious people, or else change will never be made. We will continue to fight the same oppression that we have for centuries, and when things like this happen, it feels like we are taking a step backward rather than progressing forward. It feels as if there are always obstacles in the way, whether that be conservative lawmakers, internet trolls, or whatever else.

We have made steps toward progress, but as recent events have displayed, we are still a long way from achieving equality. We must continue fighting, for the good of the world today and for the good of the world tomorrow. People like Representatives Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson give my generation hope: hope for a better future and the courage for us to fight for what we believe in.

One where students don't need to worry about getting gunned down at school, and people won't be judged on the color of their skin. However, what must we do to get there?

Conclusion

To sum up everything stated thus far, in order to fix the issues of our current timeline, we need to unlearn the ignorance of the past and move forward. Incidents like these are part of a bigger issue, and once they are addressed, we can improve society as a whole. We need to take the words of wisdom from Reps.

Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Pearson and make the world a better place, and that starts with us—we must vote into power, people who care. People who will not let the youth of this country slip through the cracks. Rep. Justin Pearson’s passion and energy for creating peace are reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. He once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The one lesson we can take from this incident is that change starts with us, and without it, democracy dies.

Alexis Aryeequaye
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Alexis Aryeequaye is a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, and aspires to become a journalist. She is an editor, writer, and interviewer for The Teen Magazine. Alexis enjoys anything having to do with current events, social justice, music, politics, or writing. Alexis loves to write poetry in her spare time. She is a published poet and is a recipient of the 2022 NCTE Promising Young Writers Award.

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