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Opinion: Something’s rotten, and not just in the state of Tennessee

Editor’s Note: Gevin Reynolds is a former speechwriter to Vice President Kamala Harris. He writes about issues of race, democracy, and politics as a contributor to The Root and Resolute Square. Follow him on X at @GevinReynolds. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

On Thursday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee dissolved the board of Tennessee State University (TSU) — the state’s only public historically black college or university (HBCU) — with the stroke of his pen.

Gevin Reynolds - Courtesy Gevin Reynolds
Gevin Reynolds - Courtesy Gevin Reynolds

You read that correctly. MAGA Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill to remove every single board member of the state’s sole publicly-funded historically Black university — and the governor signed it. Because, these extremists allege, the university’s financial situation is so dire that the only possible solution was to vacate the board and start from scratch.

While Lee has since appointed a new slate of board members, it’s important that we see clearly what happened here. TSU’s financial challenges are not the result of some widespread mismanagement on the part of the university’s leadership. In fact, an audit released last week failed to find any evidence of “fraud or malfeasance by executive leadership.”

There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence of underinvestment in TSU by the Tennessee Republicans who manufactured the very problem the school now faces. Over the past 30 years, the state underfunded TSU by over $2 billion, according to the Biden-Harris administration. How can a public university reliant on public funding be expected to succeed when it is denied the dollars that it deserves?

This underfunding is not unique to TSU. Public HBCUs across the country have been cheated out of crucial funding for decades. According to a recent letter from Secretaries Miguel Cardona and Tom Vilsack of the Departments of Education and Agriculture respectively, state lawmakers have underfunded public land-grant HBCUs by more than $13 billion over the past 30 years.

That’s why I don’t believe the Tennessee House Republican Leader, who claimed that the goal of the board dissolution was “to make TSU successful.” The unfortunate reality is that these extreme conservatives seem not to care — nor have they ever seemed to care — about the success of HBCUs. If they did, they would ensure that the institutions receive the capital they need to succeed.

What’s more, these are the same ones who are seeking to leverage their control over public education to attack diversity on all state college campuses in their states. Ten states — including Tennessee — have enacted 12 laws that ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies on college campuses.

Many of those states’ governors are also using their power to appoint as state university trustees MAGA loyalists who share their disdain for DEI. Take one of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent appointees, who in a co-authored essay described “DEI ideology” as being “inherently hostile to the mission of a university.”

Or another, who has called for “all DEI initiatives [to] be eliminated from higher education.” By underfunding public HBCUs and denying the value of Black students on non-HBCU campuses, these extremists are making very clear the kinds of students they do and don’t want to succeed.

They also are the same ones waging war on the teaching of our nation’s full history. But if we studied that history they seek to quash, we would know that the news out of Tennessee is just the latest example of conservatives rejecting the notion that Black people possess the capacity for self-governance.

We saw this phenomenon play out in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, a period in which Black America made considerable political gains. Black men won election to state houses and the United States Congress thanks to Black women whose organizing helped make that progress possible. But White Southerners quickly perceived that progress as threatening their power. In response, White supremacist mobs terrorized Black people seeking to participate in our democracy.

They lynched thousands of Black men, women and children with impunity. How did those in power respond? By seeking to justify the violence, suggesting that Black people were incapable of governing. President Andrew Johnson himself opined that Black people possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people” and would “relapse into barbarism” if not kept in check.

Physical violence aside, the parallels between those actions and the ones taken by Tennessee lawmakers on Thursday are striking, and there is even more evidence that they are taking pages out of the Reconstruction-era Southern playbook. Lee signed another bill on Thursday to repeal police reform that the city of Memphis enacted in response to the killing of Tyre Nichols last year.

On the night of January 7, 2023, Nichols was pulled over by five rogue police officers who brutally beat the 29-year-old Black man to death after a brief foot chase. This act of depravity renewed calls to outlaw pretextual traffic stops, which allow an officer to pull a driver over for a relatively minor traffic infraction. They are a big reason why officers can get away with stopping Black motorists at a disproportionately high rate, and they’ve been found to lead to violence far more often than they should.

According to a presentation by activists and organizers to the Memphis City Council, in the decade leading up to Tyre Nichols’ death, five people were injured or died during pretextual traffic stops in Memphis. And in the months following it, the community — including activists, faith leaders, and elected officials — came together under the brave leadership of Tyre Nichols’ family to demand change.

Change came three months later, when the Memphis City Council unanimously passed an ordinance, named in honor of Tyre Nichols, to ban pretextual traffic stops.

Thanks to Lee and the Republicans in the General Assembly, change has come and gone — not only in Memphis, but statewide. The new Tennessee law prevents any local government in the state from curtailing an officer’s ability to take “all necessary steps … to prevent and detect crime.”

While the GOP claims to care about local control, the actions of these MAGA Republicans suggest otherwise — especially when it comes to majority-Black cities like Memphis. The same thing is happening in other states like Mississippi, where state lawmakers are trying to police the city of Jackson. Like Southern lawmakers of yesteryear, these state leaders are hellbent on pushing their racist agendas by any means necessary.

With all of this in mind, I challenge us to do three things.

First, we must understand that what’s happening in Tennessee is not occurring in a silo. The attack on TSU is part of a systemic underfunding of public HBCUs and a state-sanctioned attempt to white-wash higher education. It’s but one example of the myriad ways in which extremist Republican supermajorities are seeking — and throughout history have sought — to reverse and prevent Black progress.

Second, we must realize that when it comes to the strength of our democracy, these attacks are just as destructive as a January 6th-like event. Whether by dissolving the board of a historically Black university against its will or by overturning good reforms enacted by local leaders, these extremists are undoing democratic norms and making Black people far less likely to believe that their state government represents them — and that their vote matters.

Third, we must vote for democracy at every single level. Not just at the presidential level, but at the state and local levels too. We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are in a war for our democracy, one whose outcome will be determined by every line on every ballot at every precinct. This election season, whether we prevail is entirely up to us.

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