We now know Justin Jones and Justin Pearson as “The Justins,” two Democratic, Black, Tennessee state legislators who, along with Rep. Gloria Johnson, led a protest calling for gun control after yet another school shooting. They became known as The Tennessee Three, though only the Justins were expelled by the G.O.P. supermajority. (They were reinstated by their local districts on an interim basis a few days later.) The Republicans were so offended by their brief loss of power—the protest forced the assembly to go into recess—that they responded with the disproportionate act of expulsion, effectively disenfranchising tens of thousands of people in the Nashville and Memphis areas who Jones and Pearson represent.
There was so much absurdity about the situation. The expulsion of only the Black members of the “Three” revealed a level of lazy racism I almost found more offensive than the racism itself. And naturally the attempt to mute these men instead made them martyrs and cable news fixtures, magnifying their message well beyond Tennessee. But the height of absurdity, of course, was Tucker Carlson, who decided to try insulting Rep. Justin Pearson for speaking in an allegedly sharecropper-like style. While Carlson was happy to complain that Pearson was mimicking the style of 1960s Civil Rights heroes, he seemed to have no problem mimicking the style of a Civil Rights villain himself, accusing “The Justins” of “facilitating an insurrection” with their loud but peaceful gun control protest while refusing to call the actual insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by its proper name.
This has all given me quite a bit of déjà vu, especially as my TV production and public speaking schedule has taken a tour through the South. In the past few months, I’ve found myself spending time in North Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and for the past week, Arkansas. No, I’m not scoping out a future move, although there is a “New Great Migration” underway by many Black Americans who’ve been priced out of northern cities in the 21st century after being terrorized out of southern cities in the 20th century (I’m oversimplifying, of course; economic opportunities and family/cultural ties drive a lot of this, too). While I plan to remain living in California for the foreseeable future, the constellation of my professional universe has entered some new phase, and these Southern places keep drawing me in. Why? What am I supposed to see or learn?