Emil Guillermo: The Asian American moment in the Tennessee attack on democracy

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Justin Jones?

I admit I wasn’t paying close attention to what was going on in Tennessee when concerned students and citizens went to the state house in Nashville and demanded action on gun violence in our schools and society.

And then I saw Jones in his white suit, the first to be expelled from the Tennessee legislature on Thursday.

Expulsion? I can see tap on the wrist, maybe. But the GOP response was more nuclear, an unprecedented reaction that should concern every American.

Jones’ expulsion was no less than a brazen attack on democracy. Disagree with the majority, even as an elected member of the legislature? The new GOP tactic is to silence the debate. . .and remove the debater. Permanently.

As I witnessed it, the reality sunk in even more so because Jones was someone who looked like me.

Like us.

I could tell immediately, he was Filipino. An Asian American. But more like a few of my relatives, he was half Filipino and half Black. A perfect amalgam of modern BIPOC America. Asian with Spanish colonial low notes, and Black.

Justin Shea Bautista Jones, 27, is one of the so-called Tennessee Three.

The one with the longer, wavy, but not totally straight black hair.

He’s one of the two I’ll dub the Justins for Justice, because only the Justins were expelled.

The other Justin, Justin Pearson, 28, with the throwback natural, the Big Black and Beautiful Afro, was born in Memphis, educated at Bowdoin College in Maine, and has been no less a fighter and activist in his first term in office.

The third member of the Tennessee Three was a white progressive Democrat and former teacher, Gloria Johnson. She did no less than what the Justins did.

So why was she was spared from expulsion by one vote?

Johnson told reporters, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”

State House Republican leaders said they did not look at the ethnicity of the members up for discussion.

Who can doubt that? How many even knew Jones was not just Black, but half Filipino and an Asian American?

They just looked and made assumptions.

Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Jones, 27, is the son of a Filipino mother and a Black father. He grew up on collard greens and adobo, he told a friend of mine, Leny Strobel, whom Jones sought out four years ago to find out about his “Filipinoness.”

Jones told her his two grandmothers, Lola Tessie on his Filipino side and his Black Lola Harriet, were his first divinity teachers, in an article for the Filipino ethnic media. Through them he connected his diverse background to spirituality and activism, which sent him South to Fisk University in Nashville.

On Thursday we saw Jones, young and eloquent, cool under pressure, his activism in action, as he bore the undemocratic attacks of the legislature.

“We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy,” Jones said. “This is a historic day for Tennessee, but it is a very dark day for Tennessee because it will signal to the nation there is no democracy in this state. It will signal to the nation that if it can happen here in Tennessee, it’s coming to your state next. And that is why the nation is watching us, what we do here.”

Jones knew the legislature’s actions weren’t just about expelling him, but expelling the people.

Not surprisingly, one of Jones’ detractors was from within, another Asian American, Sabi “Doc” Kumar, a 75-year-old retired doctor who has served in the state house since 2015.

Kumar, an Indian American born under the British Raj, who immigrated in 1970 to Florida and is a known gallbladder specialist, was condescending in his floor speech on the situation.

I didn’t catch all of his statement, but essentially, paraphrased, it was be like me, a success, I played the game and am part of the club. You could have been part of the club too.

I had it muted at first and caught only his genial and civil close.

“I wish you all the best,” Kumar said to Jones as the near hour-long debate on Jones was coming to an end.

Jones was astonished by the cloyingly patronizing political tone of Kumar that is fairly typical of the generational divide in the AAPI community.

“I don’t even know where to start, to be honest,” Jones said in response as he spoke from the podium. And then he tried with his own paraphrase. “He [Kumar] said, ‘You see everything under the lens of race. When you joined this body, you should’ve just become one of us. Just assimilate.’”

Jones couldn’t believe Kumar’s words as he spoke to Kumar and the full House. “That’s very disappointing to hear my friend, and what I told you was what you just exhibited, as the only member of their caucus who is not a member of the Caucasian persuasion, I said, that you put a brown face on white supremacy.”

That brought a rebuke from the house speaker, which sparked debate on whether Jones had a right to respond to Kumar’s egregious characterization of Jones.

Jones won that point and continued.

To Kumar’s glowing praise of the legislators in the state house that he has never heard a racial slur, Jones said that was wrong, since recently one representative recommended that “we should bring back lynching in this body.”

But Jones returned to Kumar’s main criticism that he “would not be up for expulsion if I just assimilated, if I just conformed, if I just confined myself as he has done to be accepted by this body.”

Jones objected to Kumar saying he attacked the chairman in debate, when he was simply “asserting the voice of his district” and “upholding my responsibility as a legislator.”

Specifically, Jones referred to a bill that censored conversations on race and what kids can learn in school because it makes people uncomfortable to talk about black history

“And he [Kumar] expected me to be censored as an equally elected representative, to not talk about the history of racism in America when he made those egregious statements,” Jones said to the full House. “He expected me to sit there and conform and accept things because that is the only reason that he’s been accepted by these members here. But I don’t want acceptance from you. I want acceptance from the people of my district. I don’t want approval from you. I want approval from the people in my district because I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make change for my community.”

Shortly after, Jones was expelled as a member of the state legislature by a partisan 72-25 vote.

The theocratic right that drives politics in Tennessee’s legislature is no doubt thinking about Good Friday today.

Because the day before was not a Good Thursday for American democracy.

It was a political crucifixion, with a Republican super-majority in the Tennessee General Assembly expelling two of three members who dared to speak out.

But even the theocrats know the end of the story.

Resurrection? On Monday, the local officials could fill the vacancy from the expulsion with Jones himself. And then Jones could run for his old seat once a special election is announced.

This is the ridiculousness of how democracy dies and gets reborn in our divided America these days. It’s self-righteously obstructionist and wasteful as an un-Christian theocracy dragging down our politics.

But expect to see more of this sort of thing in the future, including the Asian American flare ups. As our democracy’s diversity evolves, class, race and age become entangled in new ways as we deal with everything–not just guns, but abortion, immigration, you name it.

This week, Jones and Tennessee provided a glimpse of our modern American political future.

Including the hidden Asian American parts.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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