Former attorney general and current US Senate candidate Jeff Sessions appeared to refer to prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was arrested outside his own home in 2009, as “some criminal” in a New York Times story that ran on Tuesday, a racist characterization of the renowned Black scholar that drew condemnation online.
Sessions made the comments to the Times in a story that explored his departure as attorney general under President Trump and subsequent bid to regain his former Senate seat. In it, he defended the emphasis his Justice Department put on supporting the police, drawing a contrast to former President Obama’s administration, which made efforts to reform police departments under Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
“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. 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 said, according to the Times.
Sessions declined to clarify his remarks, according to the Times. But they were an apparent reference to Obama’s “beer summit” in 2009.
At the time, Gates had just been arrested at his own home in Cambridge after he had trouble getting into his house when he returned home from a trip, and someone called 911 to report a break-in. Even after presenting identification to police, Gates was taken into custody. The incident sparked a national outcry over racial profiling, and Obama drew criticism after telling reporters that he thought the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”
Obama sought to ease tensions by inviting Gates and the arresting officer to a “beer summit” at the White House. (And so Obama did, contrary to Sessions’ claim, have a beer with the police.)
Gates could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sessions has been accused of racism several times over the course of his career, and comments he made in the 1980s expressing approval of the KKK until he “found out they smoke pot” derailed his nomination to a federal judgeship. Sessions has said the comment was meant in jest. His past remarks were also a major issue during his Senate confirmation for attorney general, and he was confirmed by a near party-line vote, despite opposition from several high profile Black lawmakers.
Now, after his 2018 resignation from the Trump administration, Sessions is locked in a primary battle in Alabama for the Republican nomination for his old seat in the US Senate. Voters there go to the polls July 14.
A spokesman for Sessions did not immediately return a Globe request for comment.