Progressive senators concerned about former U.S. attorney, current senator, and would-be attorney general Jeff Sessions’ far-right record and reported history of making racially insensitive comments in private have scored a few points during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, which wrapped up Wednesday. But it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because Sessions is almost guaranteed confirmation by the Senate’s Republican majority and because, as my colleague Dahlia Lithwick wrote in November, the right wing has largely succeeded in framing the word racism so narrowly that it’s become useless as political rhetoric, any accusation thereof becoming immediately muddled in a cycle of misdirection (which is exactly what happened at Sessions’ hearing Tuesday). But more broadly it doesn’t matter because being racist in the United States is fine.
To explain, let’s look at two statements that Sessions has made about American history.
When white supremacist and Confederate fetishist Dylann Roof murdered nine people at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, activists called for the removal of the Confederate flag from its official positions of honor in various Southern states. Sessions was offended by this, he said:
It is not appropriate for us to erase history and who we are and our ancestors. I had ancestors—my great grandfather was killed at Antietam. I don’t think he was an evil person. He was called to serve his country as he knew it at that time and he did his duty leaving my grandfather, a baby, at home.
So this is a huge part of who we are and the left is continually seeking in a host of different ways it seems to me—you know, I don’t want to be too paranoid about this, but they seek to delegitimize the fabulous accomplishments of our country by finding all the problems and highlighting them continually and ignore the tremendous achievements we’ve obtained.
George Wallace was the Alabama governor and third-party presidential candidate whose motto was “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When he died in 1998, Sessions remembered him fondly:
He’ll be remembered as one of the most formidable third-party candidates in this century, as a person who challenged the liberal elite in America.
Put those comments in your pipe and smoke them for a few seconds. An individual who’s about to become the United States’ top law enforcement official has implied that an armed defense of actual human slavery is among America’s most “fabulous” accomplishments, and he’s nostalgic for segregationism because it drove the “liberal elite” bonkers. (Apparently Jim Crow was especially tough on New York City eggheads.)
Those aren’t ideas that Democratic senators tricked out of Sessions under intense questioning. They’re considered opinions he freely volunteered in public well before his nomination, and if enough people had a problem with them to make Sessions toxic, he wouldn’t have been hanging around the Senate for President-elect Donald Trump—who was elected despite 59 percent of voters, including 29 percent of Republicans, believing he “appealed to bigotry”—to nominate him for AG in the first place. It doesn’t matter what Sessions or anyone else said at his hearing; the country has already decided that he’s fine.
I wrote just last week that the “alt-right” was uniquely dangerous because it advocated for the bygone ideas that the legal separation of racial groups can be justified by, among, other things, the alleged genetic differences therebetween. But Sessions has reminded us that those ideas aren’t bygone at all, especially in the South. They just go by the names tradition and history.
If you’re a white Southerner whose response to this is that I don’t understand the South, I’d have to say you’re right. I don’t understand how any decent human or American could tolerate someone with Jeff Sessions’ beliefs about racial history as a peer, friend, or political representative for a single second. I don’t understand it at all.