I know that I consistently refer to white men who make racists comments as racists but I’m starting to rethink that.
In a New York Times Magazine article published Tuesday, U.S. Senate candidate and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to renowned scholar and Black Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as “some criminal.”
In order to understand how important Gates is to the Black lexicon, look at it this way. Let’s say that there was some magical way that you could restart your life in which you knowingly attempted to out scholar Gates. And let’s say that from the time you were a child, out scholaring Gates was all you set out to do. You didn’t play basketball, or pick up an instrument; you spent all your leisure time reading thick books with no pictures about the history to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and argued with your parents about the merits of the Willie Lynch letter. By the time you became a 50-year-old adult, who spent all their time shooting in the scholar gym, you still couldn’t out scholar Gates. That’s just how fucking scholarly he is.
For those who don’t remember, in 2009, Gates had been wrongfully arrested by a cop as he tried to enter his own Cambridge, Mass., home because you know, Harvard and all. The officer didn’t know how Gates had done it; he was puzzled to find that Gates had not only attempted to break into the home that he owned but also must’ve gotten there early to hang photos of him and his family. Nevertheless, then-President Obama (Goddamn, we miss you!) invited Gates and the white officer to the White House for a “beer summit.”
It was this meeting that Sessions appeared to be referring to as he was trying to make a point about Obama’s presidency and how it ruined morale amongst police.
“The police had been demoralized. There was all the Obama — there’s a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him,” Sessions said, CNN reports. “Wasn’t having a beer with the police officers. So we said, ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back, you got our thanks.’ “
Sessions even went on to claim that Obama didn’t have a beer with the officer, which was a lie as CNN notes that “Sgt. Joe Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department—the arresting officer in the incident—did join Gates, Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden for a beer at the White House during the summit.”
The larger point is an old Malcolm X joke that I will paraphrase here: what do you call a black man with a Ph.D. running down the street in a three-piece suit holding all of his degrees and a briefcase filled with historical documents on his way to the Smithsonian for a meeting in which he is hosting the prince of Egypt and his family?
And the even larger point is this: I absolutely believe that Jeff Sessions is a racist and I absolutely believe that racism is so embedded in the DNA of white American men that statements like the one Jeff Sessions made don’t even feel racist to him. There is no racist tripwire inside of them that says it’s wrong. In fact, calling one of the most renowned scholars “some criminal” will just be a slip of the tongue because Sessions knows what America knows: “They are all criminals who just haven’t done something, yet.” It’s the reason police respond aggressively to Black bodies. It’s the reason store clerks follow black bodies around their stores. It’s the reason that all of my financial transactions from the time that I was a child until adulthood were done behind bulletproof glass.
To be a white man in America is to be given the presumption of innocence and mischief and misunderstandings. Sessions can call one of America’s national treasures “some criminal” because the weight of that is not his to carry. He doesn’t have to know the facts or even the story behind what took place; he knows what America knows and will always know and what they always ask whenever a Black man is lynched. “Well, he must’ve done something for the cops to act this way.”
Jeff Sessions is a cold-hearted bitch, no doubt about it, but his DNA, his American DNA, wouldn’t even allow him not to be this way on his way out of the White House. After Trump had wrung him out to dry and laid him flat (remember he called him “weak,” “a dumb Southerner,” and consistently referred to him as “Mr. Magoo”), and instead of Sessions leaving quietly, he took his final days in office, not to stick it to Trump (he’s currently trying to use Trump’s name to help him win office), he instructed the Justice Department lawyers not to use consent decrees, one of the strongest tools the feds have to hold police departments accountable:
Shortly before Sessions left the Department of Justice (DOJ) on November 7, 2018, he circulated a memo to senior Justice Department lawyers announcing a new policy.
The memo concerned consent decrees, a kind of court order negotiated between federal and state or local officials that the Justice Department uses to pressure police departments with a history of systemic civil rights abuses.
Sessions’s memo marked a significant change of course from the Obama administration. It Instructed the department’s lawyers to be very reluctant to pursue consent decrees. And that meant that if civil rights lawyers within the DOJ wanted to go after a particularly egregious police department, they would have to fight with at least one arm tied behind their back.
We are currently in the midst of an uprising after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, but it isn’t the work of Sessions to know this. He has the luxury of forgiveness and restraint. Someone who looks like his uncle didn’t just die screaming for his dead mother’s help. Nope, the man that looked like him was doing the kneeling, and as America’s former top cop, Sessions has always been on the white side of the law. That’s the advantage of whiteness in this country and Sessions knows it well.
So no, Sessions wasn’t being a racist when he called a Black Harvard University professor “some criminal.” He was just being a white man the same as the one who arrested Gates in 2009.