On January 8, hundreds of lawmakers made pledges and took oaths evoking themes of freedom, justice, equality, fairness, propriety, peace and love. And with one hand on a sacred book and the other held high towards the Almighty, many of these lawmakers were lying straight through their faces.
They have absolutely no intentions of ensuring that the privileges enjoyed in predominately White and affluent counties and cities are also extended to some of the most rural, Black and impoverished ones.
This happened, in part, because despite claims to the contrary, most of our lawmakers are committed only to power and not justice.
The current political climate in Tennessee is indicative of the entire country. More than 50 years ago, Kwame Toure (known at the time as Stokely Carmichael) articulated the quandary of our democratic ideals and degenerative reality.
“There is a higher law than the law of government. That is the law of conscience,” he said.
Many of the tactics of nonviolence, he continued, had been rendered ineffective because in order for these methods to be most efficacious one’s opponent must have a conscience but “America has none.”
More than 50 years later, we still see the remnants and realities of the unconscionable amongst us.
We see a federal government shut down that is threatening to compromise workers’ ability to feed their families and citizen’s access to social services. Meanwhile, elected officials playing partisan politics that manufactured and sustains the shutdown are continuing to get paid.
We see a governor in Tennessee who finally granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, but clearly didn’t do enough to help reform the racist and sexist criminal injustice system that further victimized her. This same system is still ruled by Corrections Corporation of America. The world’s highest for-profit prison corporation is an ongoing contributor to a plethora of Tennessee politicians’ campaigns, including governors, senators and county prosecutors.
We see a mayor in Memphis that refuses to disambiguate and disaggregate data regarding minority contracting that would reveal the reality that a city 65% Black (and that he claims is the No. 1 city for Black entrepreneurship) still cannot secure even 30% of city contracts with Black contractors. All the while, Black businesses still receive approximately one percent of all business receipts.
There is an undeniable tornadic wind of moral bankruptcy that continues to blow from some of the highest offices in our lands and seeks to redirect our attention away from the structural and substantive towards the spectacular and superficial.
Inequity is the frame upon which our unjust governmental order stands. Yet, we are told our appeals and actions requesting systemic change through criminal justice reform, fair waging laws, accessible and affordable healthcare and immediate equitable contracting are misguided and unrealistic. These demands are not radical. They are simply righteous, reasonable and rational.
And we can rest assured that anyone who is unwilling to address the substantive, structural and systemic will only continue to demand that we remain well adjusted to an unjust status quo.
This injustice is already being narrated through subversive dog-whistles coming from our governor elect. Asked to simply remove the bust of the slave trader and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest that is displayed in the state capitol rotunda, Gov.-elect Bill Lee said it would be “white-washing history.”
This immoral and unjust governmental order is sustained through voter suppression.
Tennessee’s supreme court should take note from North Carolina’s that found voter suppression taking place with “surgical like precision.” Margaret Renki wrote in the New York Times likening Tennessee’s voter suppression tactics to “a slow-motion coup” which ultimately intends to “thwart the will of the people.”
We confiscate driver’s licenses from citizens who can’t afford to pay traffic fines.
We disenfranchise college students as well as those with felony convictions.
The Republican-led election commission in majority Democratic Shelby County has an executive director who blew the whistle of voter fraud throughout the November election, but has since not filed one suit to substantiate her claims. All these tactics (and more) disproportionally impact poor people and people of color and render us, at best, underrepresented.
Nevertheless, even with Tennessee being ranked 48th in ease of voting, through organizations like the Tennessee Black Voter Project, the Equity Alliance, #UPTheVote 901, Civic TN, scores of Black churches and grassroots organizations across the state, we still accomplished the highest midterm election turnout in almost a quarter-century, increasing turnout by 57% from 2014.
This is what an immoral and unjust political infrastructure fears: a well-informed, engaged, and inspired electorate. Therefore, my hope remains in the power of the people.
And until our local, state and federal legislators become champions for equitable access to economic empowerment, healthcare, educational advancement and to the ballot box, we cannot and will not allow any dissenters to claim any moral, religious, intellectual or political high ground.
We must call evil, injustice and collusion exactly what it is. Therefore, we will continue to organize, mobilize, agitate, write, march, preach, teach, pray, demonstrate, disrupt, and disturb the social and political order until it is legitimately reflective of one nation under God with liberation, equity and justice for all.”
(Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church (Whitehaven) and founder of #UPTheVote901.)