Some of My Best Friends

January 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I was a child, I remember, I heard my parents say dismissively of someone, probably a politician, “Yeah, some of his best friends are Jewish.” I didn’t understand. How could my parents resent someone who had Jewish friends and said so publicly? When I was a bit older, I understood – anti-Semitism is not merely a matter of personal friendships or public sentiments.

What reminded me of this incident was today’s Washington Post story on the letter signed by over 1100 law professors opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. The Post leans toward framing the issue as one of personal bigotry. It excerpts this sentence from the letter:  “Nothing in Senator Sessions’s public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”

The opposing statement comes from William Smith, an African American who has been Sessions’s chief counsel.  “In the last 30 years, they probably haven’t spent 10 hours with him. I spent 10 years working with him . . . as his top legal adviser. There are not statements that he made that are inappropriate.”

Is Jeff Sessions a racist? Is he, as the law profs say, “racially insensitive”? These questions are irrelevant, barring a history of blatantly racist statements or membership in the Klan. But also irrelevant is the question of whether some of his best friends or advisors are Black.

That “1986” in the law professors’ letter refers to a case Sessions, as US Attorney, brought against three African American civil rights leaders who helped elderly Blacks – some housebound, some illiterate – complete their ballots. The case was so flimsy that the judge dismissed more than half the charges for lack of evidence. On the charges that did go forward, the jury quickly found the defendants not guilty.

Was Sessions’s racist? Well, if you bring trumped-up charges against three Black people – charges that carry sentences of 100 years – it’s a pretty good guess that you want to scare everyone, maybe especially other Black people, from doing what those people were doing. In this case, what they were doing was helping more Black people to vote.  But Sessions’s motives need not have been racist. I suspect they were more political. It wasn’t that the voters being helped were Black; it’s that they were voting for Democrats.

In the US, especially the South, there is such an overlap of race, lack of education, poverty, and political party that laws and legal actions that will suppress Democratic votes need not appear explicitly racist. The new laws in North Carolina and elsewhere that make it harder for people to vote are race neutral in their language. But so were literacy tests and the poll tax. (See my earlier post and joke here.). In prosecuting the Black-vote workers, Sessions was merely invoking the law in its majestic equality.*

Does Sessions have Black friends and advisors? Has he spoken nicely about civil rights? The more relevant questions are about the cases he brought when he was a US Attorney. In what ways did these advance the cause of civil rights and racial equality?  Or stall that advance? (For more on this question see this op-ed from three DoJ civil rights lawyers.)

It’s like the question of whether Steve Bannon – the man Trump has chosen as his chief strategist –  is an anti-Semite. His defenders, of course, say no and point out that he has worked for Jews and hired Jews to work for him. But under his leadership, Breitbart became, in his words, “a platform for the alt-right,” a category that includes people who really are blatantly anti-Semitic. But hey, some of his best friends are Jewish.

* “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges” — Anatole France.

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