“Neo-confederate” is some seriously heavy mud to sling, but that’s just one of the nasty names Senator Jeff Sessions has been called since his nomination as Trump’s pick for Attorney General. At the heart of most objections to the former Alabama Attorney General is what has these days become an all-too-common complaint: He’s racist. And how could he not be? After all, the man is named after not one but two famous Confederates.
Sessions’ uncomfortable reputation rests on three standout incidents dredged up from his distant juridical past. The first concerns a 1985 voter fraud case involving three prominent civil rights activists accused of altering absentee ballots. After an unsuccessful prosecution attempt by Sessions’ office, the case then went on to play a decisive part in his failure to be confirmed as a federal district judge the very next year. Accusations made by Thomas Figures, a black lawyer who worked for Sessions, were particularly damning. In the hearings, Figures claimed Sessions regularly addressed him as “boy,” joked about the Klan, and once told him to be careful what he said to white folks. Finally, Sessions praised the Supreme Court’s decision to gut a key section of the Voting Rights Act that he found “intrusive.”
It only takes a little bit of digging and your daily dose of healthy skepticism to see that Sessions is no Governor Wallace, though I’ll admit some superficial resemblance if you squint (and I mean really squint). On the first count, though the evidence was ultimately not sufficient to convict, there was evidence of fraud. Witnesses told investigators directly that their ballots had been changed without their knowledge, and there were more absentee ballots filed in Perry County, population 15,000, than in nearby Jefferson County, population 700,000. Moreover, the case was handled mostly by Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Sessions’ office, and Sessions himself only became involved toward the end of the trial. As for Figures’ allegations, Sessions categorically denied using racist language toward Figures and produced five affidavits from other lawyers in his office who said they never heard anything along those lines.
It’s absolutely true that Sessions has expressed opposition to the Voting Rights Act, but then again, so did the Supreme Court. Sessions’ objection is that the act violates the principles of federalism by granting the Justice Department undue control over state election processes, which just happens to be the basis of the majority decision in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder. Absent any other substantive complaints, Sessions’ opponents point out the suspiciously Antebellum ring to his name. Of course, it should go without saying that the character of your namesake proves nothing about you, but this raises an important point. The stupid redneck is one of the last stereotypes that’s acceptable to laugh at in public, and the racist white Southerner is its political equivalent. By hastily (and mistakenly) portraying Sessions as some regressive segregationist, the coastal Left is giving in to its knee-jerk suspicion of the South and allowing misinformation to confirm the worst prejudices it holds about Southerners. At the same time, these folks can feel that much better about themselves; they might be a bit racist, sure, but at least they’re better than those damn Southerners.
The South of today is not the South of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or, God forbid, “Gone With the Wind,” as the Supreme Court recognized. Charges of racism are by no means limited to Southerners, though. Indeed, during the recent presidential campaign reaction to racism galvanized opposition to Donald Trump, himself a New York native. But for the trigger-happy Internet Left, racism is too often an easy out, a quick and effective way to signal political unfavorability. Our country has reached a point where almost no one on either side wants to be seen as racist, and while that’s a good thing, our rush to not be racist sometimes causes us to condemn without basis, as in the case of Jeff Sessions. When the creeping moralism of social justice leads us to label any and all who disagree with us as morally abhorrent, we willfully refuse to consider our opponents’ perspectives. This is bigotry by definition, and not a very encouraging starting point for political discourse in a liberal democracy.
If you’re looking to make a legitimate critique of Jeff Sessions from a liberal perspective, you might bring up his support for the Defense of Marriage Act or bans on abortions after twenty weeks or his hostile views toward legal marijuana. If racism is the best you can come up with though, just try to square that with the rest of Sessions’ record, like his role in crafting the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced trigger points for crack cocaine penalties that unfairly affected black communities. The coming confirmation fight is sure to be ugly for Sessions, and I can only hope that the Senate judges him for his own actions, not for the sins of the Old South.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.