History repeats itself

Published April 13, 2023

By Thomas Mills

When Tennessee Republicans expelled two legislators from the Tennessee House of Representatives, they laid bare the problem of having a monolithic party. They claim that the actions were about protocol, not race, but the specter of an all-White body punishing two Black men for relatively minor offenses brings back visions of our troubled past. The episode exposes not only the GOP’s problem translating history, but their inability to see the world through the eyes of people with differing cultural experiences.

Throughout the vast majority of Tennessee’s history, African Americans have been denied equal access to protection under the law. Until not too long ago, they were subject to extrajudicial punishments with perpetrators facing no accountability. They were subject to a LEGAL system that denied them a jury of their peers since juries were made up solely of White men. The legislature that expelled Justin Jones and Justin Pearson looked remarkably like the juries of the past that often gave leniency to White offenders while handing down harsh sentences to Black ones. 

Without adequate representation in elected bodies and without equal access under the law, African Americans learned that they often needed to protest in order to bring about change. They needed the public eye to draw attention, not just to build support, but for protection from violence and violations of their civil rights. The protest that Jones and Pearson carried out in the well of the Tennessee House fit that tradition. Vastly outnumbered by an all-White Republican majority in the legislature, the men brought attention to the GOP’s refusal to address gun violence with the tools they had. They certainly weren’t going to get a discussion in the legislature. 

Republicans’ protest that the men broke the rules harkens back to the segregationists who complained the organizers of sit-ins broke the law in the 1960s. The White Citizens Councils and other groups argued that Black protestors needed to work through the system, even though African Americans were denied equal access to the systems they wanted to change. And similar to the Tennessee legislature, the institutions were controlled by overwhelming White majorities with little sympathy to the positions or plight of African Americans. 

Republicans regularly bristle when they are criticized for being racists. They claim they don’t discriminate and don’t use racist language. However, their approach to governing shows a remarkable lack of empathy or sense of history. Today, they are more concerned with making the children and grandchildren of segregationists feel uneasy than teaching the troubling history of our country. They cannot look beyond their own positions to see how they might be viewed by people whose experience in this country differs dramatically from theirs. They are the self-fulfilling prophesy of the saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The GOP has embraced ignorance and rationalization. Their arguments defending their actions are more than familiar to anyone who studied reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Their goal is to stifle dissent and ensure that rules favor their majority in the legislature. They are anti-free speech. 

The members of the party who sit silent but see what’s happening are enablers. They are the offspring of the movement conservatives of the Reagan era who encouraged stereotypes of welfare queens to drive a wedge between working class Whites and working class Blacks. They are like the pickup truck I saw this weekend parked in a handicapped parking space and a bumper sticker of the Gadsden flag that read “Don’t Tread on Me.” They have no self-awareness, but are smug in their self-righteousness. 

What we saw in Tennessee last week was history repeating itself–a White majority exerting its influence to protect its power by crushing the opposition with extreme measures. The modern GOP is driven by the same reactionary forces that drove Jim Crow. They want to protect a largely homogeneous culture from the inevitable change of a dynamic society. They are willing to subvert individual rights and use the tools of oppression to achieve their goals. And they are supported by people who will overlook abuses of power in order to secure lower taxes and less government regulation in the interest of an unfettered free market economy. 

Maybe if the GOP were more diverse, somebody within the party could make them understand how their actions look to the rest of the world. Instead, they’ve got a party of people reinforcing a world view that is exclusionary and divisive. They support each other in their misunderstanding of history and the righteousness of their cause.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they do have a sense of history. Maybe they know that oppression and restricting democracy kept White people in power for over a hundred years after the end of slavery. Really, though, it doesn’t matter. Whether they know it or not, the result is the same.