What Jeff Sessions Doesn’t Understand About Racism

It didn’t end on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Booker / Sessions
Cory Booker testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the confirmation hearings on Jeff Sessions’ attorney general nomination in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Until Cory Booker testified this afternoon in an unprecedented attack on one senator from another, confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, who seeks to become America’s attorney general, followed a predictable path. Senate Democrats challenged the nominee on statements he has made about his Senate votes or past comments regarding violence against women, torture, voter fraud, marijuana, prosecuting Hillary Clinton, a Muslim registry, and Donald Trump’s boasts about sexual assault.

Sessions deflected most of these challenges in one of three ways: by claiming that his position on that item has now changed; or claiming that his position will change because as attorney general his policy preferences will evaporate under the neutral commands of “the law”; or by claiming that he was being victimized and mischaracterized.

Sessions’ allies in the Senate took turns expressing shock and dismay that Democrats could go after a man they had all worked with and adored for years. And they repeatedly suggested that Senate Democrats were willing to call anyone they disagreed with a racist.

In what was undeniably the most uncomfortable moment of the second day of hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham lit into NAACP President Cornell Brooks for the NAACP’s Legislative Scorecards, on which Sessions received a score of only 11 percent and other GOP senators scored in the lower double digits, whereas Democrats seemed to unerringly score 100 percent. Brooks attempted to explain that this had nothing to do with party affiliation, but Graham stopped him to purr, “I hope that doesn’t make us all racist.”

It was a smart piece of political theater: the NAACP and its witness reduced to the boy crying racist wolf at the sight of any and all Republicans. Just as he had done the day before in a colloquy with Sessions, Graham managed to make the argument that the real victims of racism in America are the delicate and refined men of the South, maligned as racists for nothing more than ambulating with funny names.

Sessions assured Graham that being called a racist was “painful,” and almost all of his witnesses in the two panels that testified Wednesday told stories of Sessions as a mentor, boss, colleague, and friend, someone who supported black colleagues and never whispered a racist sentiment. It’s an incredibly sweet and distillate version of political qualifications—the notion that if someone can work, consume Dairy Queen Blizzards, manage others, and never explode in a torrent of racial abuse, he is a civil rights warrior. These stories are entirely beside the point.

As Jamelle Bouie argues, what’s in a man’s heart is immaterial if, as attorney general, he is blind to the systemic and often unconscious bias that infects the lives of women and minorities he is meant to protect with the apparatus of our civil rights laws. And yet Sessions voted against hate crime legislation because, as he put it in 2009, “I’m not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it.”

The fact is, as witness after witness for Sessions explained Wednesday, he truly doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see the impact his 86 out of 87 votes against abortion and other women’s health protections would have on women, or how his vote against taking the language of religious tests out of immigration law would hurt Muslims. Sessions doesn’t see racial disparity at all, which is, as his character witnesses each concluded, what makes the Democrats’ claims of racism especially corrosive. Of course, not seeing that racism exists is its own sort of blindness. To be determinedly race-blind on principle isn’t racism. But it sure isn’t neutral, especially at the helm of the Justice Department.

Sessions and his supporters further urge that he believes in the Voting Rights Act and worked tirelessly to celebrate Rosa Parks and the Selma protesters. What all this obscures is that it is possible to believe that John Lewis and Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are all landmarks of racial justice, and also that they all outlived their purposes by 1975. The notion that the era of civil rights protection should be over doesn’t originate with Sessions. John Roberts pithily suggested that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” in claiming that the era of voluntary school integration has passed. In its Shelby County decision, five members of his Supreme Court concurred that we no longer need the core protections of the VRA because those vote-suppressive days are happily behind us. Indeed, Jeff Sessions said this week that he only championed dismantling the VRA after the Supreme Court advised us we don’t need it anymore.

And this is why civil rights icon John Lewis’ heartfelt testimony before the judiciary committee was met mainly with beaming smiles and hail-fellow-well-mets. Republicans on the committee believe in the kind of racism that leaves you bloodied and pepper sprayed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but not in the sort that asks you to produce a voter ID in 2016, or closes every DMV where you might procure one. They reject the old-timey racism and still dispute the existence of the subtle, sometimes unconscious, and often systemic bias built into every brick of the prison industrial complex, and every word of our sentencing laws and felon-disenfranchisement statutes. That is “law and order” stuff. It has zero to do with race.

It took Sen. Cory Booker to knit together the two eras, and he did it explicitly this afternoon, seated alongside Lewis and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond. Booker takes some heat for unerringly finding the spotlight just as he is shoveling a widow’s sidewalk, but he is also willing to step into the klieg lights to talk about uncomfortable racial truths. He did not call Jeff Sessions a racist; he simply called attention to Sessions’ inability to see race. “I know my colleagues are unhappy that I am breaking with Senate tradition,” Booker granted, before arguing that in a choice between Senate norms and his conscience and country, he needed to side with the latter. Booker explicitly noted that he and Sessions had worked together to recognize the “foot soldiers who marched at Selma.” But as he cast it, as a man a generation younger than Sessions, “the march for justice still goes on.”

Booker pivoted to challenge the idea that the sole responsibility for the attorney general is to promote law and order. He marveled at the “incredible courage of law enforcement officers.” But then, in a hearing characterized by tales of city hellscapes and rising violence against cops, Booker insisted that law and order alone is not enough. He urged that America was founded not just upon law and order but on the principles of justice and equal protection under the law. As he put it, “Law and order without justice is not obtainable.” Then he explained that Sessions had spent a career showing “hostility” to these convictions about equality. Rattling off Sessions’ votes on issues including criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and voting rights, Booker argued that the attorney general needed to be determined to bend the arc of the moral universe. “I pray my colleagues will join me in opposing this nomination.”

Booker’s testimony will change precisely no Republican minds on a Judiciary Committee that has persuaded itself that the NAACP are the real racists. But by explicitly tying his own personal history in New Jersey with Lewis’ march decades earlier, Booker was rejecting the idea that racism died in the days after Selma.

Jeff Sessions will be the next attorney general, and conversations about race and racism will become ever more difficult, especially in public spaces. What Booker did Wednesday was what had not happened anywhere else in the Senate hearings: He proved that one’s friends and colleagues and co-senators can testify that you have a good heart and a hearty love of Dairy Queen, and still fail to understand that this has almost nothing to do with the architecture of racial injustice our laws must attempt to dismantle. And that this country still has miles to go on repairing racial inequality and violence, and that if the attorney general himself doesn’t believe in that work, we will indeed, as John Lewis warned, all of us go backward together.