When President Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to be the attorney general, Democratic lawmakers argued that the then-senator from Alabama becoming the nation's top prosecutor would be a step backward in advancing the relationship between the Justice Department and people of color.
“I think he’s a racist, I think he’s a throwback and I don’t mind saying it, any day of the week,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart in May.
Other lawmakers expressed concern about Sessions's commitment to diversity during his nomination hearing, where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) attempted to read excerpts of a letter written more than 30 years ago by Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., to Congress to block Sessions's appointment to a federal bench out of concern that it would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”
We can recall how that went: Warren was rebuked by Senate Republicans, and Sessions went on to become attorney general.
Now, some Democratic lawmakers appear to be just as concerned — if not more — that Session's Justice Department is more detrimental than beneficial to the progress of blacks in the United States.
The department went from being headed by the first black female attorney general, Loretta Lynch, to not having any black Americans in senior positions, something Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) probed during a House hearing with Sessions this week.
“I do not have a senior staff member at this time that's an African-American,” Sessions acknowledged when asked about the significant decrease in diversity of judicial nominees.
Sessions went on to say: “We should look for quality candidates, and I think diversity is a matter that has significance.” The attorney general did acknowledge he recommended only one black candidate for a U.S. attorney position.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) asked Sessions the Tuesday hearing about an FBI report that labeled activists protesting police brutality “black identity extremists.” The report received criticism from activists who highlighted the agency's controversial history of monitoring black activist groups, including the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Sessions said he was unfamiliar with the report: “I'm aware of groups committed to racial identity, transformed into violent activists.”
Despite rallies organized by white nationalists across the country, including in Charlottesville, where one counterprotester was killed, Sessions also said he was not aware if the FBI had done a similar report on “white identity extremists.”
Liberal activists did not respond well to this.
Jeff Sessions was not able to name a single African-American group that is a violent threat to law enforcement.
Yet there's a report on "Black Identity Extremists" & none on the many white supremacist groups that are an urgent & viable threat to law enforcement & the nation. https://t.co/euemZYvFcE
— Jo Kaur (@SikhFeminist) November 15, 2017
It was the latest example for many on the left of the significant changes occurring at the Justice Department following the Obama presidency. The department announced earlier this year plans to roll back Obama-era efforts to investigate local police departments before they issue public reports about their shortcomings, a move that those supportive of police reform criticized.
Trump supporters often respond to concerns about a lack of diversity in key positions by saying that the administration is more focused on accomplishments, not quotas. To critics, the retort comes off as if there aren't people of color who are competent enough for the job.
While Sessions said he values diversity, the lack of black senior officials raises concerns with a group of Americans who have historically had a negative relationship with law enforcement based on race, among other things. The latest hearing with Sessions was another reminder for some black Americans that despite Trump's campaign promises, these voters do stand to lose something under his presidency.