We learned a great deal about our country over the last year and a half, but one of the more jarring lessons is that we are not living in a post-racial America — far from it. Such a notion seems all too apparent today, but eight years ago, after the election of the first African American to the highest office in the land, there was a glimmer of hope that we could finally relegate our sordid past of racial inequality to the history books. It’s clear that this was overly optimistic and naïve.
This is not to imply that the majority of those who voted for President-elect Donald Trump were motivated by race, as some would have it, though he was the preferred candidate for racists. He was endorsed by white supremacist David Duke and the KKK, and hate crimes are on the rise across the country — the graffiti frequently using the president-elect’s name as a rallying cry. The East Rutherford home of Giants fullback Nikita Whitlock was vandalized in December, with a swastika, anti-black language, and the word “Trump.”
During this pivotal and potentially perilous moment in our nation’s history, we congratulate our junior senator, Cory Booker, for taking on his colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. Never before has a sitting senator testified in opposition at another’s confirmation hearing, but Booker’s decision to break protocol was warranted because the Alabama Republican has long been associated with racial intolerance.
The allegations against Sessions emerged in 1986, more than 30 years ago, when the then-39-year-old was denied a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the time several individuals came forward and claimed that Sessions had made racially insensitive, if not racist, statements, including saying that the NAACP was “un-American” and “Communist-inspired”; that the NAACP and ACLU were forcing civil rights “down the throat of people”; and that he represented law-and-order, considered by some to be an anti-black term. Also troubling, a black former assistant U.S. attorney under Sessions testified in 1986 that his superior repeatedly called him “boy.”
Even if Sessions is not a racist, there are indications that he would be less than fully committed to combating racism and advancing the cause of civil rights. The report of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asserted that “an unrelenting hostility toward civil rights and racial justice has been the defining feature of Jeff Sessions’ professional life.”
Booker, in his testimony, expressed concern whether Sessions would display “courageous empathy” as attorney general to be fully committed to seek justice for all. “Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job — to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all,” Booker said. “His record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to the justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, against the drug-addicted, against the mentally ill, and against people of color.”
No doubt Booker’s decision to testify had an element of partisan politics, hoping to increasing his stature as a possible Democratic candidate for president in four years. But his history in public service indicates his sincerity in stepping up to insist on the highest standards for equality and racial harmony in choosing our next attorney general.