Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) came under heavy criticism on Capitol Hill this week, as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered his nomination to become President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general.
Much of the fiercest public opposition to Sessions centered around allegations of racism that have plagued the Republican since 1986, when the Senate was considering his nomination for a federal judgeship. At the time, Sessions faced allegations that he’d once referred to a white civil rights lawyer as a “disgrace to his race” and called the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP “communist-inspired” organizations.
When pressed on his remarks about these groups, Sessions said that “fundamental legal barriers to minorities had been knocked down” and that the organizations had been “asking for things beyond what they are justified in asking.”
A black former assistant U.S. attorney also claimed Sessions had called him “boy,” among other racially insensitive remarks, including joking that his biggest problem with the KKK was that they smoked marijuana.
Sessions denied some of these allegations and admitted to others, all while maintaining that he was “not a racist” and “not insensitive to blacks.” But the testimony served as the basis for a character assessment that led the Senate to reject Sessions in no uncertain terms. Then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) called him “a throwback to a disgraceful era.” Sessions returned to Alabama, became the state’s attorney general, and a few years later won election to the U.S. Senate, where he’s been ever since.
On Tuesday, more than 30 years after Sessions suffered his first defeat before the Senate, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was again on the hot seat, fending off accusations that he’d once held ― and even now maintained ― antipathy toward people of color.
These charges are disturbing, and using them to expose Sessions as a racist would be one of the quickest ways to disqualify him from becoming the nation’s chief law enforcement official. But focusing on decades-old incidents as evidence that he is supposedly a bigot came with its own risks. For every claim that Sessions had demonstrated racist or racially insensitive behavior, there was a supporter ― many of them black former colleagues ― ready to vouch for his kindness, impartiality or color-blindness.
To his conservative allies, this proved Sessions couldn’t be racist, and that accusations to the contrary were little more than vicious attacks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went so far as to ask Sessions if being called a racist had hurt his feelings.
“It does not feel good,” answered Sessions. “You have a Southern name, you come from south Alabama; that sounds worse to some people.”
The weight placed on this line of attack, as well as the apparent success of Sessions’ defense against it, reflects the shallowness of our national discourse around race and racism, in which racial animus or prejudice is something that appears primarily in overt, unabashed displays of hatred.
But members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised the bar for Sessions in their testimony on Wednesday, making it clear that their concern was not so much whether the Republican was racist, but whether he was anti-racist ― someone truly intent on dismantling systemic inequity and working to make the U.S. justice system truly egalitarian. The evidence, they said, suggested he wasn’t.
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “How friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who is gonna stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help.”
“We have come a distance. We’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet,” Lewis added. “There are forces that want to take us back. ... We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward.”
It is, of course, possible for Sessions to have had positive relationships with black friends or colleagues and to still be a bad choice for attorney general. Just because he may have treated people as equals regardless of their skin color doesn’t mean he’ll use the office to proactively combat inequality, be it based on race, gender, sexuality or ability. Even if he hasn’t use racial slurs, that doesn’t mean he’s going to make it his mission to both preserve and advance the civil rights progress of the last 50 years.
Sessions may not wear a white hood, but he has shown disdain for a number of civil rights initiatives and articulated that the only sort of discrimination he’s concerned about is the kind that’s open about its intent. At a time when most Americans, including the nation’s bigots, understand that you can’t be openly racist in your business or political dealings, the Justice Department must also be willing to take on actions and policies that have a discriminatory impact on specific groups of people. Controversial voter ID laws, for example, do not explicitly state that they’re trying to keep African-Americans from voting, yet they often do just that.
Civil rights groups did raise substantive questions about Sessions’ record on a number of key causes, including voting access, LGBT rights, immigration enforcement and criminal justice reform. But to many in the public, and certainly to conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee, these criticisms often appeared to take a back seat to the more inflammatory claims regarding his alleged conduct.
In an unprecedented display, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also spoke out against Sessions on Wednesday, becoming the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague at a Senate confirmation hearing for a member of the president’s cabinet. Although Booker noted that he had co-sponsored legislation with Sessions awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the civil rights activists who marched on Selma, Alabama, in 1965, he said he did not have confidence that Sessions would show “courageous empathy” as attorney general and work with an “affirmative duty” to seek justice for all.
“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job ― to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all,” Booker said. “His record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to the justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, against the drug-addicted, against the mentally ill and against people of color.”
Despite opposition from a number of Democrats, the Senate is widely expected to confirm Sessions as the next attorney general this month.