If there was any lesson to glean about the state of racism in America on Tuesday, it did not come from the farewell address by our nation’s first black president. Many of us might have believed in Barack Hussein Obama but never placed much faith in the country he described on the Democratic National Convention stage in 2004, or the one he boasted of the night of his historic election win in 2008, and most certainly not the one he spoke of last night. To know the United States of America and its true outlook on its original and most enduring sin, racism, one can find no better mirror than the first confirmation hearing for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Republican senator from Alabama, whom Obama’s successor seeks to have serve as our next attorney general.
Three decades ago, the Senate denied Sessions a federal judgeship amid allegations that as U.S. attorney, he had improperly prosecuted black voting rights activities in addition to employing racially charged language—namely referring to a black man as “boy.” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery recently uncovered a previously publicly unavailable letter from Coretta Scott King sent at the time, which called on the Senate to reject Sessions as a judge. The widow of Martin Luther King Jr. argued that Sessions would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”
Since that time, Sessions has made little effort to alleviate concerns that his legal outlook remains soiled by the stench of his prejudices. Sessions has supported voter suppression and cruel, hardline immigration standards, all while forgoing the option to lend support to legislation that would protect racial minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community. Worse, Sessions has sought to reimagine himself as a civil rights hero, lending his name to cases for which he did little or no work on—something Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) exposed Tuesday.
Yet Sessions, along with his Republican colleagues, had the effrontery to act as if he were the victim of his own failures at humanity.
First there was Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who told committee members during opening remarks, “I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Senator Sessions is anything other than a dedicated public servant and a decent man.” According to Collins, Sessions “is not motivated by racial animus.” Collins’ comments toed the fine line between comical and infuriating.
However, Collins’ absurdity was topped by another conservative Sessions colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, as another white Southerner, is adept at shimmying by accusations of racism with the typical choreography.
Graham asked Sessions, “Would you agree that being called a racist is the worst thing that can ever happen to someone?” To which Sessions replied, “Why, yes, sir, I would.”
In “Jeff Sessions should have been a tough sell in the Senate, but he’s too nice” news, writer Paul Kane notes that Sessions is “one of the more well-liked members of the Senate.” Kane went on to describe him as “genial, respectful and patient toward colleagues and staff.”
As a black man of the South, I know Sessions’ ilk all too well. Of all the traits shared among Southerners regardless of color, it is the commitment to congeniality. Sessions is a “good ol’ boy.” The kind of white man who will smile in your face so long as you know your place. The sort of person who will sure be pleasant to you but who nonetheless retains fidelity toward maintaining the status quo that has his rights and his power towering over yours.
Being mannerable doesn’t make you any less of a monster. Even so, if there is one characteristic that white people in both the North and South share, it is the collective assertion that to be accused of racism is worse than actually being a victim of racism. It is easier for Collins, Graham and Sessions to feign heartache over the accusation of racism than to grapple with the realities of it. Instead, they circle superficiality for the preservation of their fundamentally flawed understanding of racism.
Graham said to Sessions, “You have a Southern name. You come from south Alabama. That sounds worse to some people, south Alabama.”
What a crock. There are white people I’ve met who are uninformed of the pain attached to certain names and symbols related to the Confederacy, but who sincerely mean me no harm. Children don't have a say over their name, but how they live as they grow older is a choice, and change can come through education, conversation and a willingness to change.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is committed to the ugliness his name represents. This is not about Southern stereotypes but about a life dedicated to disenfranchisement, subjugation and maintaining the status quo. In 2017 a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic hatemonger wins a presidential election on a platform of hatred and with one of his first acts of power selects a like-minded man to enforce his version of the law.
The evidence against Sessions is insurmountable, but just as with the entire presidential-election campaign and the history of his country, many are more concerned with the impoliteness of being accused of racism than with the terror those of us face who are living under it. Where we are is where we’ve long been. That reality is just like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III: sickening.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.