IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I have a dream that one day Tucker Carlson will shut up about Rep. Justin J. Pearson

On top of the Fox News host's flawed argument that a sharecropper can’t be a great speaker is a criticism of the young Black lawmaker that’s unsurprisingly incoherent.
Expelled State Rep. Justin Pearson delivers remarks through a megaphone outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville
Expelled state Rep. Justin J. Pearson speaks Monday outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville.George Walker IV / AP

Few people are looking better right now than Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson, one of two Black Democratic legislators who were reinstated to the state House days after Republican colleagues expelled him for standing with residents demanding gun control legislation. And few people are looking worse than those Tennessee Republicans who in their attempt to heap shame upon two young Black men brought shame upon themselves. Those Republicans also lost the ground they were trying to defend. Tuesday, Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order strengthening background checks in the state.

Instead of taking the L, the Republican attack brigade has launched a diversionary tactic.

Instead of taking the L, instead of acknowledging that the targeted legislators were brave and effective and that their Republican colleagues were full of hubris, the Republican attack brigade has launched a diversionary tactic.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, skilled at expressing multiple bigotries at once, likened Pearson to a transgender person on his show Wednesday night. Contrasting a video of Pearson campaigning for a student government position at Bowdoin College with video of him now using a Black preacher’s cadence, Carlson accused Pearson (whose father is a Black preacher) of having made a “transition” from a Bowdoin College student who “did a fantastic impression” of sounding like a white person to “the modern incarnation of Martin Luther King Jr. himself.”

All Democrats, to hear Carlson tell it, aspire to sound like King. They don’t aspire to sound like Malcolm X, he said, “because Malcolm X didn’t talk like a sharecropper. He spoke dignified, standard English.”

One of the best speeches in 20th century America was given by a sharecropper: Fannie Lou Hamer, a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hamer said that if national Democrats rejected her integrated group for the segregated Mississippi Democratic Party, “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

On top of Carlson’s flawed argument that a sharecropper can’t be profound is a criticism of Pearson that’s unsurprisingly incoherent. “Black men in particular, and Black people in general, are supposed to be able to do opposite-ends-of-the-scale things,” Toni Morrison once argued. “And we don’t have to make sense.” Thus, Carlson can claim, without his argument having to hold together, that Pearson was doing an impression of a white person at Bowdoin in Maine and is doing an impression of a Black person in Nashville. A Black person, who despite being an absolute master of the English language on the podium and on the page, somehow doesn’t make Carlson’s list of “dignified, standard English” speakers.

This is evidence of how the Tennessee Three won and are winning. Carlson didn’t call out Pearson’s positions Wednesday. He just expressed disgust that Pearson is embracing a Black aesthetic to express them.

All public speaking is performance. A person’s most authentic self and the self that emerges when the lights are bright are never the same.

There are two things worth pointing out here. First: All public speaking is performance. A person’s most authentic self and the self that emerges when the lights are bright are never the same. There are classes, even clubs, where people study and practice to become good public speakers. That’s a sign that good public speaking isn’t the same as being oneself.

Second, there aren’t a whole lot of Black people in the U.S. who have a single way of speaking. Many have a voice for Black people they’re comfortable with and another for others.

I grew up in Mississippi with an English teacher mother who demanded perfect grammar and enunciation, and I didn’t fully understand just how much my adherence to her rules made me stand out until my senior year on a mostly white college campus. That’s when a Black classmate who was also from the South interrupted me to say: “I just realized something. You talk like this all the time!”

It had never sunk in that I didn’t have to talk like that all the time and that doing so hindered my ability to connect with people, especially Black people, who didn’t.

A politician’s first job is to connect with voters. It would be the height of foolishness for Pearson, who represents a Memphis-area district that’s 61% Black and where a quarter of people live in poverty, to talk the same way he’d talk on the quad at Bowdoin, which is mostly white. It would be foolish for politicians, regardless of race or party, to talk in a way that might alienate them from voters.

Carlson is mad at Pearson for the same reason the Republicans who expelled him were mad.

There is a huge difference between African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, and the rhetorical style that comes out of the Black pulpit. There are people who use AAVE and don’t speak in the cadence of the Black preacher, and there are Black people who employ the techniques of the Black preacher and don’t use AAVE. But it’s clear in the way Carlton conflates them, in the way he implies that King — King! — sounded like a sharecropper, that he harbors contempt for Black language and Black style.

In that, Carlson is mad at Pearson for the same reason the Republicans who expelled him were mad: He’s refusing to follow their rules. If he had followed their rules, he wouldn’t be winning the game right now. But he didn’t, and that’s why he is.