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Solomon Jones: Sessions' hearing show how much ground we've lost on race

Solomon Jones, Philadelphia Daily News on

Published in Op Eds

In a surreal juxtaposition of historic events, the first black president said goodbye to the nation Tuesday night, only hours after an alleged racist reintroduced himself in his bid to become the nation's next attorney general.

The legacies of President Barack Obama and Sen. Jeff Sessions will be endlessly examined in the coming months. But their unusual proximity in this moment is ironic because Obama is a black man who dared to look to the future, and Sessions is a white man who looks to be a relic of the past.

If I have learned anything from watching this moment unfold, it is this: We must remain vigilant on the issue of race. Racism, after all, is America's original sin. Its painful effects filter through the gaps in time, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

But racism isn't the only thing that has brought us to a moment when the future will cede ground to the past. We are here, quite frankly, because of our tendency to forget the past.

Obama, as he reminded us during his farewell address, orchestrated America's comeback from the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. It was a calamity that George W. Bush created with unnecessary wars, deficit spending and the same kind of corporate deregulation that President-elect Donald Trump promises to reinstitute. The results, we now know, were disastrous.

In December 2008, the month before Obama took office, the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent. Over 11 million Americans were out of work. By October 2010, the national unemployment was a whopping 10 percent.

Since then, Obama led us to 75 straight months of job growth. The unemployment rate has dropped by more than half. Over 11 million jobs have been created. And Obama's signature health-care law, the Affordable Care Act, has helped over 20 million Americans gain health insurance.

But Obama is black, and in the face of the kind of racism that has undergirded American society from its inception, those achievements will be minimized. In the minds of many Americans, Obama's achievements must be erased.

That's why the Republican push to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act -- first by creating the pejorative "Obamacare" label, then by voting dozens of times to repeal the health law -- has been so consistent.

By erasing Obamacare, Republicans believe they can symbolically erase Obama. By belittling his stellar record on job growth, they attempt to belittle the man. By demeaning Obama's presidency, they seek to return us to a time gone by.

Ironically, Obama's ascension to the White House gave them the opportunity to do so because it awakened the kind of hatred we thought we'd left behind.

It has been instructive to hear Trump's bigoted views about Mexicans, blacks and Muslims. It has been enlightening to see him point to refugees and immigrants as the sinister "others" whom white America should fear. It has been educational to watch the passion of the largely-white crowds who cheered him on during his most offensive moments.

But we learned the most by watching those who supported him.

That's why Sessions' confirmation hearings are so important. They show us how much ground we've lost on race.

In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of numerous allegations of racism. He allegedly referred to a black lawyer as "boy." He joked that his only problem with the Ku Klux Klan was its members' drug use. He was accused of calling a white lawyer who represented blacks a "traitor" to his race. And he was accused of calling racial justice organizations like the NAACP "un-American."

Sessions, in Tuesday's confirmation hearing, said those allegations created a caricature of who he is. He said he is not a racist.

But it was Sessions who lent unwavering support to Trump during the presidential campaign, despite Trump's bigoted statements about Mexicans, blacks, immigrants and Muslims. And even as other Republicans spoke out against the implicit racism in Trump's statements, Sessions repeatedly donned his "Make America Great Again" hat and smiled in tacit agreement with Trump.

In my view, that says more about Sessions' character than his past.

More than Sessions' past negative statements on the Voting Rights Act, or his failed voter fraud prosecution of black voter-registration workers, or his questionable record on race, his actions in recent months trouble me.

If Sessions can cheer on the bigoted statements of Trump now, Sessions won't mete out colorblind justice later.

In the wake of the racial progress that Obama's presidency represented, Sessions represents a return to America's original sin of racism.

And we will pay for that for generations to come.

About The Writer

Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email him at sj@solomonjones.com.

(c)2017 Philadelphia Daily News

Visit the Philadelphia Daily News at www.philly.com

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