NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The first month back at the state Capitol has felt frustratingly familiar for Black lawmakers in Tennessee’s majority-white Legislature.
First, lawmakers passed a new congressional map scattering Nashville’s Black voters across multiple districts. Now, a Republican lawmaker wants to advance a resolution dismissing the existence of deep-rooted racism in the military as detailed in an Associated Press investigation.
Many of Tennessee's Black lawmakers say their attempts to raise awareness about structural racism have been dismissed by white colleagues, even in the most innocuous of resolutions. Republican lawmakers firmly in control of the statehouse are more interested in fueling culture wars and advancing race-baiting proposals, they contend.
“Anything that tells the truth about our history, for whatever reason, their fragility comes into play and it is exposed,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis and chair of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus.
Republican leaders argue that they are focused on advancing policies benefiting all Tennesseans and deny their actions have devalued anyone, including minorities.
The air of suspicion intensified after the General Assembly unveiled plans earlier this month to split Nashville into three congressional districts, effectively making it easier to flip a Democratic-controlled district, which critics say will dilute the Black vote. GOP supermajorities in the state Senate and House passed the map, and it appears unlikely it will draw objections from Gov. Bill Lee even as it faces threats of legal challenges.
The separate resolution filed by Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey called for the Legislature to reprimand The Associated Press for its investigation that revealed a deep-rooted culture of racism and discrimination in nearly every branch of the U.S. armed services despite multiple efforts to eradicate it.
Hulsey's resolution declared racism inside the military “does not exist” and described such findings as “false charges,” arguing "racism in the U.S. military is uncommon and not a largescale problem."
Hulsey, who has not served in the military, told the AP he was asked to file the resolution by service members' families in his eastern Tennessee district.
“I think, based on their numbers, that is wrong to paint the whole military with that kind of brush when that is not the case,” Hulsey said. “Anyway, I told them I would do it and I did, and I’m getting a bunch of flak for it.”
AP spokesperson Lauren Easton said that “The Associated Press stands by its reporting.”
For Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Black Democrat from Nashville, Hulsey's resolution is the latest attempt by Republican leadership to suppress Black and brown voices on historical racism, along the lines of the Legislature's recent ban on teaching “critical race theory" in K-12 classrooms.
The theory, an academic framework about systemic racism, has become a catchall phrase for teaching about race in U.S. history and a key message Republicans are deploying to rebut scrutiny of institutional racism ahead of crucial midterm elections this year.
Republicans argue critical race theory must be prohibited to fend off attempts to rewrite American history and make white people believe they are inherently racist. But Dixie countered that the ban penalizes those who want to speak the truth about the country's history.
“Since I’ve been there, it's always been a powder keg, and Republicans do nothing to diffuse this fiery atmosphere,” Dixie said. “It’s a misdirection. They’re not passing any legislation that helps people.”
Unlike legislative bills, resolutions are largely symbolic nonbinding gestures. Hundreds are filed each year by lawmakers, who usually go on to approve them without much debate. Sometimes, a few resolutions become political lightning rods, often representing ongoing tensions inside the Tennessee General Assembly.
In 2020, Republican lawmakers refused to advance a resolution memorializing a 17-year-old Black girl who was fatally shot in her car. The resolution was spiked after a GOP leader stood up to mention that police officers had said the woman was killed after she and a friend made a “small marijuana sale," even though the sale has never been proved and her slaying remains unsolved.
The failure came amid global protests against racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck. Democratic lawmakers had hoped the energy would translate into meaningful changes on social and police reform.
That didn't happen in Tennessee.
A year later, Parkinson filed a resolution declaring racism a public health threat and pledged that the General Assembly would “commit ourselves to openly and honestly addressing racism to end areas of disparity and inequity.” The resolution cleared initial hurdles but stalled after Republicans objected to implications of racial bias in the medical field.
"Racism is America’s cancer," Parkinson said.
And earlier this month, a resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day was quietly tweaked to remove mention of the Poor People’s Campaign, the national demonstration against poverty King was planning, which has been revived by activists with the goal of ending systemic racism. An amended version — stripped of any mention of racism — passed the House.