Heritage of Hate

Who Jeff Sessions is talking about when he praises “Anglo-American” law enforcement.

A photo illustration of Jeff Sessions and Bull Connor.
Jeff Sessions, Bull Connor. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock, Joe Raedle/Getty Images, and the city of Birmingham, Alabama.

In remarks delivered to the National Sheriffs’ Association on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered some bizarre-sounding praise for “Anglo-American” law enforcement traditions. “Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process,” Sessions said. “The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.”

If Sessions did not have one of the nation’s deepest résumés of racial prejudice, one could perhaps write off this episode as an awkward rhetorical commendation from the nation’s top lawman, which his spokesperson has since defended as a mere description of the “shared legal heritage between England and America.” Given Sessions’ appalling personal legacy and the special place that sheriffs’ offices hold in the hearts of right-wing extremists, though, Sessions’ most recent dog whistle was simply too loud to ignore. It also serves as yet another reminder that Americans who value civil rights should continue to demand his removal every single day.

It’s worth remembering that countless black Americans were lynched, captured, beaten, hosed, tortured, and terrorized with either the overt support or the deliberate indifference of “the people’s protectors” over the course of American history. During most of the time “since our founding,” local law enforcement has played the role of an oppressive force against black Americans, rather than a protective one. One oft-cited study by sociologist Arthur Raper, for example, estimated that “at least one-half” of U.S. lynchings after 1929 were “carried out with police officers participating, and that in nine-tenths of the others, the officers either condone[d] or wink[ed] at the mob action.” Elected local law enforcement officials like Birmingham, Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor were similarly celebrated in their time by offering “protection” to black Americans in the form of fire hoses, police dogs, and billy clubs. To many people of color, who are still disproportionately targeted by local law enforcement today—even for minor crimes like jaywalking and marijuana possession—the disturbing history of institutional racism in the “historic office” of sheriff may resonate to this day.

To today’s white nationalists, however, Sessions’ full-throated embrace of “the Anglo-American heritage” of local sheriffs would mean something else entirely. For decades, far-right extremists have seized upon the mantle of “posse comitatus”—a legal doctrine providing for substantial deference and authority to county sheriffs—as a basis for rejecting the federal government’s authority to enforce civil rights laws. The notion that sheriffs reign supreme over federal law enforcement officers is also a central claim of self-styled “sovereign citizens”—right-wing anarchists who “recognize the local sheriff’s department as the only legitimate government official.” With this context in mind, when Cliven Bundy takes the podium to celebrate sheriffs who have been elected by “we the sovereign people of the county” and proclaims their supremacy over federal law enforcement officials, he and Jeff Sessions are speaking to the same audience in the same language.

Sessions’ barely concealed hat tip to the right-wing underground, of course, does not come in anything even resembling isolation. Throughout his career, Sessions’ political stances have turned almost uniformly on whether proposed government action will maintain or improve the status of white Americans at the expense of people of color. He’s propelled these stances to new heights since taking over the top law enforcement position in the land. For example, Sessions has ardently supported states’ rights resistance to federal “overreach” like the Voting Rights Act—a “piece of intrusive legislation,” in his estimation—while championing federal supremacy over state policies aimed at protecting immigrants or liberalizing drug prohibition. Similarly, while Sessions has made clear that no amount of police misconduct can be considered substantial enough to justify a federal investigation, when black civil rights organizers tried to register voters in his backyard, no federal case—no matter how flimsy—could be considered too small.

In other words: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s central political philosophy is not federalism, or limited government, or any other respectable worldview traditionally associated with conservatives. Instead, from speaking wistfully about George Wallace, to reportedly condemning white civil rights lawyers as “a disgrace to [their] race,” to joking about supporting the KKK “until [he] learned they smoked pot,” Sessions espouses a political theory that can most accurately be described as “racism.” His celebration of “the Anglo-American heritage” of the American sheriff—a racially loaded overture to which he could not and should not have been ignorant—is no different. Instead, it’s yet another reminder that Jeff Sessions is hideously unfit to oversee the Department of Justice and that the best thing that could happen to civil rights in America would be for him to resign.