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What the expulsion of Black lawmakers in Tennessee reveals about race and democracy

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Yesterday the Tennessee state legislature voted to expel two Black members. The Republican majority accused them of bringing, quote, "dishonor and disorder to the House of Representatives" when they led a gun control protest. It was fraught and racially loaded, so much so that Vice President Kamala Harris is in Tennessee to meet with the two ousted members, and President Biden spoke with them this afternoon. NPR's Sandhya Dirks joins us now to talk about what this story reveals about race and democracy. Sandhya, welcome.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Sandhya, there were three representatives under threat of expulsion, but one of them was spared.

DIRKS: That's right. So Representative Justin Jones and Representative Justin Pearson were expelled while Representative Gloria Johnson survived by one vote. Here she is on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALISYN CAMEROTA: Why were those two expelled and you weren't?

GLORIA JOHNSON: Well, I think it's pretty clear. I'm a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men.

DIRKS: Representative Johnson also pointed out that there was a way, a tone in which both young Black men were talked to. I want to play you one example of this. Here's Representative Andrew Farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW FARMER: Just because you don't get your way, you can't come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn.

DIRKS: So Farmer was visibly angry while he spoke. And here's the response of Justin Pearson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN PEARSON: Now, you all heard that. How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?

DIRKS: I want to point out it's not the first time that Pearson has been chastised by a white Republican representative. He was also told it wasn't appropriate for him to wear a dashiki underneath his suit jacket.

FLORIDO: Sandhya, what can you tell us about the constituents that these two men represent?

DIRKS: So Justin Pearson's district is about 61% Black, and that's in Memphis. Justin Jones in Nashville - his district is about 30% Black and 24% Hispanic. These people are now unrepresented - right? - because of a decision by an almost entirely white Republican supermajority. And that supermajority isn't even really reflective of Tennessee. Voting rights activists say, like many states, the map has been gerrymandered by Republicans to dilute the Black and brown vote.

FLORIDO: There was another moment in yesterday's proceedings that was explicitly about race but in a different way. Can you tell us about that?

DIRKS: Yeah. That was when an Indian American representative, Representative Sabi Kumar, spoke directly to Representative Justin Jones. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABI KUMAR: You look at everything through the lens of race. Those are your experiences, and that's perfectly understandable. But sincerely, after becoming elected, you should be celebrating. You really should be. You should join the House, become one of us.

DIRKS: It's this really striking moment. Kumar is suggesting that if you play by the rules and gain proximity to power, you'll be accepted. But Jones doesn't buy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN JONES: Just assimilate - that's very disappointing to hear, my friend. And what I told you was what you just exhibited as the only member of their caucus who is not of the Caucasian persuasion - I said that you put a brown face on white supremacy.

DIRKS: Kumar added that he'd never heard a racial slur used in America. But Jones pointed out that earlier this year, a white Republican suggested bringing back lynching for the death penalty. Lynching was used to murder and terrorize Black people.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR's Sandhya Dirks. Thank you very much.

DIRKS: Thanks, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF IF THESE TREES COULD TALK'S "BELOW THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.