Jeff Sessions Fights for Racist Outcomes. Who Cares What’s in His Heart?

The confirmation hearing for the would-be attorney general reveals the right’s attitude toward racism.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, testifies during his confirmation hearing to be Attorney General of the US before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama testifies during his confirmation hearing to be attorney general before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Molly Riley/Getty Images

Not long into his confirmation hearing for the office of attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions had a remarkable exchange with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“I’m from South Carolina,” Graham said, “so I know what it’s like sometimes to be accused of being a conservative from the South. That means something other than you’re a conservative from the South. In your case, people have fairly prominently tried to label you as a racist or a bigot or whatever you want to say. How does that make you feel?” Sessions allowed that it was “very painful.”

In just a moment, Graham and Sessions had turned a conversation about the Alabama senator’s actions into a referendum on his character, one in which his discomfort with the language of racism matters more than the weight of his choices as a prosecutor and policymaker. Sessions is a controversial nominee for a reason. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund details in its report on the Alabama lawmaker, “An unrelenting hostility toward civil rights and racial justice has been the defining feature of Jeff Sessions’ professional life.”

As a prosecutor in the 1980s, Sessions pursued a voter fraud case against three activists—Albert Turner, Evelyn Turner, and Spencer Hogue—who spearheaded voter registration efforts on behalf of black voters in Alabama. They gave assistance to those needing help casting a ballot, from elderly voters to those who were illiterate or who could not get to the polls on Election Day. Sessions indicted the three on the charge that this assistance was a crime, despite its protection under the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, Sessions declined to investigate similar activity among groups working with white candidates. The double standard was so egregious that a court agreed with the defendants that Sessions’ office “was activated by constitutionally impermissible motives such as racial … discrimination.”

During his confirmation hearing for the federal bench, Jeff Sessions voiced skepticism of the “vote dilution” claims brought against local governments for “at-large” districts that diminished the voting strength of black Americans. “It is a serious thing,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “for the federal government to come in and to sue a county and say we are going to change the form of government that you have been living with for 20 years.”

Later, as attorney general for Alabama, he challenged a 1994 settlement that would have remedied vote dilution in the state, requiring additional judgeships and establishing a commission charged with selecting diverse candidates for new vacancies. Sessions convinced a federal circuit court to reject the prior ruling and invalidate the consent decree. Since then, notes the NAACP, “there have been no African-American judges on either the Alabama Supreme Court or the state’s two lower appellate courts since 2001, and no African-American has won election to any of these three courts in 21 years.”

In fact, as Pema Levy shows for Mother Jones, Sessions was instrumental in keeping black judges off the federal bench in his state of Alabama. One Birmingham-based attorney, John Saxon, recounts his effort in the late 1990s to get Sessions to support a judge for the state’s predominantly black Southern District:

As Saxon recalls, the two men huddled together in the university president’s private box to discuss the open judicial seat, and Sessions repeatedly told Saxon that he couldn’t live with any of the candidates the committee had suggested. So Saxon invited Sessions to propose a different black candidate for the position from anywhere in the state. There were several potential candidates who could have appealed to Sessions, Saxon says. One was Ken Simon, a black lawyer and former state judge who had served in the Ronald Reagan administration and worked at the state’s largest corporate defense firm. “He’s not some flaming liberal,” Saxon says. But Sessions didn’t put forward Simon’s name, or anyone else’s.

This continued under President Obama, with Sessions opposing Obama’s picks for the five vacant district judgeships in Alabama, as well as the open seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

At every turn, when met with efforts to increase diverse representation or reverse the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Jeff Sessions has stood in opposition. He has disparaged groups working to reform the death penalty, publicly supported “chain gangs” for prisoners in Alabama, and worked against bipartisan efforts to reform federal sentencing, including severe mandatory minimums that fall hardest on black and Latino offenders. In one exchange on Tuesday with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Sessions confirmed that he still opposes an effort to make sentencing reform retroactive for drug offenders imprisoned under the now-defunct 100-to-1 crack-cocaine disparity. And while Sessions says “it’s not the attorney general’s decision about when and where a mandatory minimum is imposed and whether it can be retroactively altered,” it is true that the attorney general can influence the guidance provided to federal prosecutors, as evidenced by Eric Holder’s decision to move prosecutors away from harsh punishments of minor drug offenders.

In another exchange, Sessions all but disparaged efforts to investigate police departments with patterns of abuse and discrimination. “We need to be sure that when we criticize law officers it is narrowly focused on the right basis for criticism, and to smear whole departments places those officers at greater risk,” said Sessions, suggesting against all evidence that criticism of police and police departments has led to higher crime rates in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.

Sessions has decried charges of racism. “I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. We can’t look into the senator’s heart. What we can do, however, is look at his record. And his record shows clear disdain for efforts to remedy racial discrimination. That he joined Rep. John Lewis for an anniversary march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge—that he’s been endorsed by figures like Condoleezza Rice—doesn’t change the fact that he has used his career to impede the fight for fair treatment and full equality.

Sessions is frustrated by what he calls a “caricature” of his views that cost him a federal judgeship in 1986. He believes accusations of racism are “very painful.” We shouldn’t doubt his feelings. But we should evaluate his actions. If the question is a commitment to civil rights, Jeff Sessions falls far short. That conservatives such as Graham insist, against this background, that accusations of racism are unfair is deeply revealing of the right-wing attitude toward racism: that it’s OK to devote your career to racial reaction so long as you have a black friend or two, that it’s entirely about the individual and what is or isn’t in his heart. In the Republican imagination, racism itself has been privatized.