clock menu more-arrow no yes

If you want the truth about racism, listen to the Sessions hearing, not just Obama’s farewell

The hearing is frightening. And real.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Barack Obama
Scott Olson / Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla / Staff

With little more than a week to go in the White House, President Obama delivered his farewell address to the nation from Chicago Tuesday night. He shared a broad view of his administration, covering familiar topics including fighting discrimination and terrorism, increasing understanding, appreciation of his family, and a reminder of “the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change.”

But most of the day leading up to the speech, political news was dominated by a very different story. Aside from the latest reports about Donald Trump and Russia, Senate hearings for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general held the attention of political watchers throughout the day.

What makes Sessions particularly controversial in this position is his association with racism, as Vox’s Dara Lind has reported, due to his dismal civil rights record and his personal behavior toward black colleagues. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship in Alabama when President Ronald Reagan nominated him way back in 1986. Thomas Figures, a black prosecutor, told the committee that Sessions had called him “boy” and told him to be careful with what he said to “white folks.” Figures also claimed that Sessions said the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.”

That’s right: Sessions was apparently too racist for the GOP of Ronald Reagan but will likely pass muster with the GOP of Donald Trump. And when critics say Sessions’s confirmation would be a blow to equality, it’s not just about comments from his past — it’s about his present-day views. His positions on voting rights, criminal justice, and immigration mean confirmation would represent a massive setback for civil rights for African Americans and other people of color.

As a result, his confirmation hearing has forced people on both sides of the aisle to grapple with racism: how it’s defined, how it’s measured, and how much — if any amount — is disqualifying for a person in power. For that very reason, it was the perfect backdrop to the farewell remarks of a president whose very existence, from his 2008 campaign to forces behind the election of his successor, has made scrutiny of the role of racism in American life and politics unavoidable and forced us to face uncomfortable truths.

Obama’s 2008 election represented a victory over backward ideas about race similar to those that define Sessions’s career

Obama’s election in 2008 was obviously a historic first. More than that, it was widely read as a symbol of the long history of efforts to deprive African Americans not just of political power but of civil rights.

With that in mind, it’s understandable that in his speech, Obama was optimistic about where things are going: “I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago — you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum,” he said Tuesday.

But if Obama represented part of a narrative about the declining role of racism, Sessions’s potential new role is a reminder that there’s still plenty of enthusiasm for it. The juxtaposition is striking. As Peniel Joseph wrote for CNN Tuesday, “President Obama and Sen. Sessions exemplify two divergent interpretations and realities of American history, one that most citizens have yet to fully comprehend but that can be seen all around us if we only care to look.”

To examine Sessions and his career is to be confronted with Sessions’s resistance to racial progress — the very opposite of what Obama has come to stand for — and how far back it goes.

Just one data point on that: The Washington Post reported today on a letter Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, wrote opposing Sessions’s 1986 nomination, arguing that it would be a blow to her late husband’s work for racial equality:

The irony of Mr. Sessions' nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods. ... I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband's dream.

Sessions’s opposition to the kinds of laws and policies that are the foundations of racial progress hasn’t changed. As Vox’s Dara Lind reported Tuesday, his critics worry that if he’s confirmed, the Department of Justice will be uninterested in challenging state and local practices — from gerrymandering to voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting — that have the effect, and sometimes the explicit intent, of reducing minority voting rates. When it comes to civil rights, Democrats fear a repeat of the George W. Bush years, or worse.

It’s jarring to think that Obama’s farewell will likely be followed by the appointment to attorney general of a man who was behind the times with respect to race decades before a black president even seemed like a remote possibility.

As Joseph put it, “The greatest living symbol of America's racial progress leaves office just as one of the most vocal champions of states rights and an alleged sympathizer of the Klan enters the national stage to become attorney general. For American race relations, this represents not so much a glaring contradiction than business as usual, although this time done before the disbelieving eyes of a stunned world.”

Sessions’s sensitivity to being called racist is a reminder of the histrionic reaction Obama risked inspiring each time he so much as mentioned race

During the Tuesday hearings, there was a perfect example of the backlash that often follows use of the term “racist,” whether it’s applied to an individual or to the operation of an institution or history of a country. Vox’s German Lopez reported on Sessions’s statement that it was “very painful” to be called a racist — and explained why it was both beside the point and representative of larger patterns:

On Tuesday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow Southern Republican, asked Sessions, “I am from South Carolina so I know what it means to be accused of being a conservative from the South — meaning a racist or a bigot. How does that make you feel?” Sessions responded that such accusations were “very painful.”

This is all too typical of discussions about race in America. Instead of considering what could drive someone to call another person racist, the issue quickly turns to just how unfair it feels to be called racist. The underlying feelings are never analyzed — just the perceptions of a word (“racist”) that’s now treated almost as a slur on its own.

This is part of a well-documented phenomenon called “white fragility.” The problem is people are often so sensitive to any accusations of racial bias that they may not have the ability to look beyond how they feel about being called a racist and evaluate what might merit such accusations — such as, in Sessions’s case, his history opposing civil and voting rights protections. And this is a particularly worrying trait for the person who may soon head the US Department of Justice, charged with enforcing laws that protect minority Americans’ civil and voting rights.

In his address, Obama didn’t hold back from talking about race. He remarked that dreams of “post-racial America” after his election were never realistic, saying that “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”

He also reminded the audience that “when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our founders promised.”

While the force of these statements was predictably tempered by calls to understand the plight of white men who perceive themselves to be disadvantaged even if they are not, it was among the more pessimistic — and stronger — statements on race of his presidency.

There are a lot of possible explanations for why Obama didn’t speak more explicitly and aggressively about race and racism during the majority of his eight years in office. Even Tuesday night, he continued his even-handed messaging on race; he put the perspective of the economically anxious white man who felt victimized on equal footing with those of people of color who were actually victimized by racism.

We’ll never know if the public statements Obama has made in his role as president align perfectly with his innermost feelings. Perhaps over the past eight years, he thought making more pointed — and less unifying — statements wasn’t his job. Perhaps his personal sensibility and worldview truly did make him want to focus on the positive and to nod to all perspectives, however out of touch.

Or perhaps it was because of reactions just like the one we saw during Sessions’s hearing, when the nominee said he felt personally attacked by being labeled racist. Perhaps it was because of what happened the few times Obama so much as approached the topic of racism in a serious way. Don’t forget that his critics are still up in arms over the time he mourned the death of an unarmed black teenager, saying Trayvon Martin could have been his son.

Maybe he decided such candor wasn’t worth the backlash in the form of a widespread “I can’t believe you just called me [or called America] racist” — the kind of response we saw from Graham and Sessions during the confirmation hearing.

The “very painful” comment during Tuesday’s hearing was a reminder of the all-too-common villainization faced by anyone who endeavors to condemn racism, even in the smallest way — a reality that was a cloud over the entirety of Obama’s presidency.

Sessions represents the dreams of the people whose racism was activated by Obama

Supporters of any president would feel some sadness on the occasion of his final speech, but Obama’s last days are especially dispiriting to those who dared to hope that his presidency would mark the decline of racism as a force in American life. While he insisted tonight that the country really was on a positive trajectory, there’s also another way to see it: that from the beginning, his very existence — a black man in a historically white office — triggered irrational racial and political polarization and revealed the depth and permanence of bigotry. One piece of evidence in support of that: Pollster Cornell Belcher explained to Vox, that his data revealed a “crisis of racial antagonism” among the voters who helped Trump win.

As a result, Obama will be succeeded by a man who’s openly encouraged racial discrimination, and whose support was most strongly predicted by racism and sexism. A president who would appoint someone like Jeff Sessions.

Values like the ones Trump and his attorney general nominee have expressed will have a lot more power and real-life consequences come next month. It’s no wonder Obama admitted tonight that “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” That’s something few who paid attention during the past eight years, or today’s hearings, could deny.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.