The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People staged a sit-in Tuesday at the Mobile, Alabama, office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the man whom President-elect Donald Trump has nominated as attorney general.
NAACP President Cornell Brooks said the organization did so because of Sessions’ record on voter suppression and other racial issues.
But in the eyes of many Americans, the allegations of racism pale in comparison with the problems with other Trump nominees.
Take Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, who has business ties to Russia, a country that remains an enemy of the United States, despite Trump’s desire to believe otherwise. Or Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder. He opposes raising the minimum wage for the working-class voters who supported Trump.
Those serious issues could affect all of us. But white Americans won’t be affected if Sessions brings racial discrimination to the Justice Department he’s poised to run. That’s why white America is content to look the other way.
White Americans won’t need the Justice Department to investigate local police departments that engage in systemic racism. Nor will they need the Justice Department to step in when right-wing political leaders engage in voter suppression. White Americans won’t need the Justice Department to fight against the bias in a criminal justice system that gives blacks longer sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes.
Therefore, stopping Sessions’ nomination is not a priority for white Americans. And that, dear reader, is how racism thrives.
When white Americans who recognize injustice pretend it doesn’t exist, racial discrimination flourishes. When whites pretend racism is an inevitable fact of life, racial discrimination grows. When whites pretend racism doesn’t matter because whites aren’t affected, we move backward as a society.
Sessions’ nomination proves that very point because Sessions has been nominated for a federal position before. Back then, the response was much stronger.
The year was 1986. President Reagan nominated Sessions, then a 39-year-old U.S. attorney in Alabama, to a federal judgeship. During Senate confirmation hearings, Sessions was confronted with numerous allegations of racism.
He was accused of calling a white lawyer who represented blacks a “race traitor.” He’d allegedly used the “N-word” and referred to a black lawyer as “boy.” He’d purportedly said his only problem with the Ku Klux Klan was their drug use. And he was accused of calling racial justice organizations such as the NAACP “un-American.”
Thirty years ago, such accusations were enough to scuttle Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench. Today, in an atmosphere where racism has been normalized by a president-elect whose own bigoted assertions propelled him into office, Sessions’ alleged statements don’t seem to matter as much.
With millions of Americans willing to accept the racially charged rhetoric of the president-elect, the nomination of Sessions to lead the Justice Department will have its share of apologists.
The accusations of racism will be excused as the bad judgment of a much younger man. Sessions will be portrayed as the sage adviser who helped the president-elect formulate foreign and domestic policy. The dangers Sessions would pose as the head of all federal law enforcement agencies will be downplayed. And people of color will potentially be left without the federal protections the Justice Department once provided.
For now, though, the NAACP continues its fight against a man who is poised to take charge of the Justice Department during a time of turbulence between communities of color and law enforcement.
Now, more than ever, black people need fairness from our criminal justice system, and the numbers show we still are not receiving it.
In 2016, according to a database compiled by the Washington Post, black men made up 34 percent of the unarmed people shot dead by police, though black men are only 6 percent of the American population. And while white men make up 46 percent of those killed by police, blacks are now three times as likely to die in such encounters than their white counterparts.
Under former Attorney General Eric Holder and current Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the Justice Department was willing to engage on those issues. Justice conducted investigations that uncovered systemic abuses in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed young black man named Michael Brown was shot dead by then-Officer Darren Wilson. Such investigations forced consent decrees that brought about change.
I don’t expect such investigations will be conducted if Sessions is confirmed as attorney general.
That’s why I support the NAACP’s decision to sit down for change.
I can only hope that the rest of us will decide to stand up.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.