A photograph of Heather Heyer is seen on Aug. 14 among flowers left at the scene of the car attack on a group of counterprotesters that took her life in Charlottesville. (Justin Ide/Reuters)
Columnist

White supremacy has never been far from the surface in this country’s tortured history. It got new life during last year’s presidential election, fueled by then-candidate Donald Trump’s dog-whistle racism, campaign rallies encouraging violence, and policies of mass deportation and “law and order.” And it exploded into plain sight when Saturday’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly.

President Trump’s initial response to the horrific events — a vague condemnation of violence and hatred “on many sides” — was a disgrace. It was also unsurprising. After all, the marchers were espousing a racist ideology, defined in part by the poisonous belief that white people are the real victims in today’s “politically correct” society, whose goals are being actively advanced by some in Trump’s administration. On Saturday night, the Justice Department announced that it would open a narrow civil rights investigation into the murder of Heather Heyer, who lost her life protesting the abominable views on display in Charlottesville. But it is fair to question whether the department is up to the task given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in just six months in office, has transformed it into a political weapon that is being used to roll back hard-won progress and resist efforts to ensure full civil rights and equality for all.

One of the most obvious examples of Sessions’s perverted sense of justice is his enthusiasm for the failed war on drugs and its ignominious legacy of mass incarceration. Today, the United States has the world’s largest prison population with some 2.3 million people behind bars. As a result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of those incarcerated are minorities. The disproportionate incarceration of black and brown Americans is a legitimate civil rights crisis, astutely labeled “The New Jim Crow” by legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander, that is devastating communities across the country. So, it is for good reason that criminal justice reform is among the few issues that have transcended the bitter partisanship of the past few years, drawing support from leading activists and lawmakers across the political spectrum.

Upon taking office, Sessions moved quickly to thwart that momentum. In May, he rescinded sentencing guidelines that then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder issued in 2013, which aimed to reduce the prison terms of many nonviolent drug offenders. Instead, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges and punishments, including ineffective and unjust mandatory minimums for low-level offenses. The order was swiftly criticized by supporters of criminal justice reform in both parties. “Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” declared Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who more recently introduced bipartisan legislation to reform the bail system with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice.”

Moreover, Sessions’s hostility to reforming the criminal justice system is not limited to what happens after a guilty verdict is rendered. Despite the public outcry over police brutality and discrimination resulting from the sometimes fatal violence against black people, including innocent children, at the hands of law enforcement officials, Sessions remains fiercely opposed to the idea of policing the police’s behavior. In March, Sessions ordered a review of all existing “consent decrees,” agreements between the Justice Department and local authorities in cities including Baltimore and Chicago to address systemic misconduct, arguing that it “is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Civil rights leaders blasted the move, which NAACP President and Chief Executive Cornell William Brooks called “a morally bankrupt step that could have disastrous results regarding the protection of black lives.”

But reversing progress toward criminal justice and police reform is only part of the ugly record the Justice Department has racked up in Sessions’s tenure so far. The department has advanced the Trump administration’s assault on voting rights, reversing course on Texas’s strict voter ID requirement and defending Ohio’s controversial “use it or lose it” policy, under which the state has purged some 2 million voters from the state’s election rolls. Sessions has eagerly contributed to Trump’s anti-immigrant crackdown, promising more aggressive prosecution of immigration violations and threatening to cut off grants to “sanctuary cities.” And just this month, he signaled his intention to use the Justice Department’s civil rights division — the same division that is now responsible for investigating what happened in Charlottesville — to go after the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Although Trump has belittled his attorney general as “very weak,” Sessions has successfully flipped the Justice Department’s mission “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans” on its head. From canceling plans to phase out federal use of for-profit private prisons to calling for an increase in civil asset forfeitures, a practice the American Civil Liberties Union has likened to “legalized theft” by law enforcement officials, to arguing that LGBT employees are not legally protected from discrimination, virtually all of Sessions’s actions have served to undermine civil rights, not protect them.

Responding to the ghastly violence in Charlottesville this weekend, Sessions did manage to clear the pathetically low bar set by his boss. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred,” he said, “they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.” Tragically, however, many of his actions suggest otherwise.

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