When President Trump said he wanted former senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to head his Justice Department, liberal lawmakers and activists warned that his appointment would be detrimental for civil rights, specifically when it comes to issues impacting black people.
A lot of what they were worried about came to pass in the less than two years he was in the position. Sessions made significant efforts to roll back decisions made by the Obama administration in the area of policing law enforcement and protecting civil rights.
Not long after Trump’s inauguration, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told Washington Post opinion columnist Jonathan Capehart that she believed Sessions was “very dangerous” for 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,” she said. “I think that Jeff Sessions is very dangerous … and I think that he absolutely believes that it’s his job to keep minorities in their place. And so I think we have to watch him, we have to keep an eye on him, and be prepared to push back.”
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made headlines for opposing Sessions’s nomination by attempting to read a 1986 letter critical of the former lawmaker.
“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren said after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell interrupted her speech.
Waters likely felt that way in part because Sessions allegedly accused the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations of being un-American when dealing with civil rights issues. And former colleagues testified that he used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought the terrorist organization was “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” Sessions denies that he made those comments.
Under Sessions’s leadership, the Justice Department has rolled back efforts to investigate police departments before releasing public reports about their failings — a practice put in place during the Obama administration after activists complained about law enforcement’s bias against people of color.
And Sessions and his staff were criticized by members of Congress after the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, an investigative unit that focuses on threats from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, created a new label for domestic terrorist groups — “Black Identity Extremists” (BIEs) — just before the violent march and protest in Charlottesville drew more attention to white supremacy in America.
Sessions’s move to enforce federal marijuana laws were viewed as an attempt to revive the failed war on drugs, something historians say disproportionately harmed people of color. A directive made it easier for American prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where the substance is legal, such as California.
And during the latter years of the Obama presidency as police shootings of men of color gained national attention, the Justice Department put systems in place to hold law enforcement more accountable for their actions.
But shortly before being fired, Sessions made sure his last action was consistent with so many of his others while in the Trump administration. On Wednesday morning, he signed a memorandum making decrees used during the Obama era to fight abuse by police more difficult to enact.
Sessions will be remembered for many things — being the first lawmaker to affirm Trumpism is one of them, but to many liberal lawmakers, his legacy will be backing policies that disproportionately negatively affected people of color.