Just when you might be inclined to feel a little (OK, very little) sympathy for former US attorney general Jeff Sessions, he comes right back and reminds you that he’s every bit as appalling as the president who now despises him.
The latest memory-jogger comes close to home, via an interview Alabama’s Sessions — now trying to return to the Senate — gave The New York Times. In it, he appeared to call celebrated Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “some criminal.”
Gates was famously not committing a crime when he was arrested at his own home in 2009 by a Cambridge police officer who thought the Black academic was breaking in. The arrest sparked a national debate over racial profiling, which turned into a fiasco after the nation’s first Black president had the temerity to weigh in. A few days after the arrest, President Barack Obama made some mild comments on race and policing, and said the police had “acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”
Outrage ensued. A stunned Obama tried to quell it by convening a “beer summit” at the White House. Gates and the police officer worked it out and agreed to move on.
But white voters stayed angry at Obama, accusing him of dividing the nation because he had dared to criticize the police officer and raise the issue of racial disparities in policing. Police unions and their allies set themselves more firmly against him. By daring to speak of race, Obama had punctured the short-lived fantasy of a post-racial America to which his election had given rise. In the minds of those for whom civil rights are a zero sum game, the beer summit transformed into something sinister: the ascension of Black Americans at the expense of the police. It’s no accident that white supremacists assume they’re welcome at “Blue Lives Matter” protests.
More than a decade later, I still get e-mails from white readers who blame Obama for fanning the flames of racial hatred in America, citing the beer summit as evidence.
So of course that’s how a man deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986 sees it too. Touting his own efforts as AG to protect police from excessive accountability, Sessions said they were “demoralized” under 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 [to police], ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back.’”
Sessions declined a Times request to clarify his comments, but he was clearly confused. Of course the police officer was there. Gates declined an interview request for this column, but earlier this year he told the Times that the White House bent over backward to try to make the officer — and, clearly, white voters — feel comfortable about the meeting, agreeing to put the white vice president at the table so that the police officer wouldn’t be outnumbered, asking Gates not to wear too fancy a suit, lest the Black man alienate Americans by signaling too clearly his lofty social station.
Naturally, none of that prevented the display of white fragility that followed. Nor did it stop Sessions from remembering one of the nation’s most celebrated intellectuals as “some criminal,” proving the point of the national protests against racist policing that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Sure, Sessions looks good compared to President Trump, who continues to persecute Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And to current Attorney General Bill Barr, who has made a mockery of the rule of law.
But Sessions has done plenty of appalling things. He was the architect of Trump’s draconian immigration policies, including the separation of children from their families at the border, and undermined Obama-era civil rights gains.
And, on his last day as AG, Sessions corrected what he found so offensive in that beer summit by gutting the Justice Department’s ability to hold police departments accountable for civil rights violations.
But it seems events are overtaking Sessions. Large majorities of Americans now agree that systemic racism exists and support sweeping changes to policing.
Sessions might yet prevail in Alabama. But America is pulling away from him.