Calling Someone Racist Does Not Win An Argument

Liberals are now arming themselves to fight against the appointment as Attorney General of Senator Jeff Sessions, a man who was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 due to racist comments. The line of attack seems to be something like, “Jeff Sessions was too racist even for the 1980s, and therefore must not be our Attorney General.”

This is a rhetorical and political mistake. Democrats have not yet understood that calling someone racist does not win an argument. It only initiates a script that is by now well-practiced. Democrat calls Republican racist, based on something they said (which is, often, in fact pretty racist). Republican responds that they are not at all racist, as any of their friends will attest, and that they have disavowed racism multiple times throughout their public life (this latter part often true). Democrat insists that Republican is lying about their true feelings, Republican insists they are not. The End.

This accomplishes nothing. Jeff Sessions probably truly believes that he is not racist. Whether he is or not, no amount of litigation over whether Jeff Sessions is racist will resolve this question. Sessions is not an idiot. He is a canny enough politician to navigate that sort of hearing without saying anything blatantly racist. Besides the semantic question of what being racist means exactly, there is no way to look through Sessions’s doughy eyes into his soul and see the exact texture and contours of his feelings towards black people.

I would take the exact opposite approach. I would stipulate that Sessions is not racist. And then ask him how he plans, as the top law enforcement official in the country, to ensure that the law treats everyone fairly. Ask him how he plans to make sure that voting laws are not abused to prevent black people from voting. Ask him why he decided to prosecute black people for voter fraud, even though the Selma court found them not guilty. Ask him if he supports similar cases today. Ask him how he plans to address police harassment and brutality. Ask him whether he will respect the U.S. District Court’s decision that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional. Emphasize that this is an issue that affects everyone, but non-whites in particular. Ask, without sarcasm, since you and he are partners in making sure that the law treats all Americans equally, how he plans to contribute to this project. If he says “leave it up to the states” then ask whether he, as a non-racist, is not concerned that leaving it to the states results in mistreatment of minorities.

There are two advantages to this approach. The first is that it focuses on what really matters. I hate to be one more white guy quoting James Baldwin, but this passage from The Fire Next Time rings with as much truth and clarity today as it did when Baldwin wrote it in 1963:

“There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.”

It would be great if our Attorney General did not bear a deep-seated animus towards black people. Really, I would like that, and I’m sure many black Americans would too. But it’s more important that he ensure fair treatment of black Americans by police officers, and that he defend the right of black Americans to vote. Jeff Sessions will not do these things. He will not respond to questioning with a detailed plan to defend the rights of minorities. But it’s important that he at least say that these are goals he shares.

Because Sessions will be the next Attorney General. Democrats will lose this battle. And Sessions’s tenure as Attorney General will be a disaster for civil rights. I’m under no illusion that a statement during a confirmation hearing will constrain his behavior in any way. But such a statement would be a useful tool in future political battles over DOJ actions, much more than yet another blanket “I’m not racist” defense. His feelings towards minorities are unobservable. His policies and how they affect minorities are observable, and they can be checked for consistency with earlier statements.

The second advantage of this approach is that it frames the argument as pro-fairness, rather than anti-racism. That is, it makes the argument one that Democrats can win. Democrats are hoping that the racism of Sessions calling a black lawyer “boy” is transparent to any fair audience. They think that the script I played out above is an argument that they have won. But as this year has revealed, the audience is not fair. No audience is fair. One audience of particular political importance — white American voters — becomes defensive in response to accusations of racism, even when they aren’t the ones being accused. They could see themselves in the same position, think of themselves as not racist, and are willing to trust Sessions when he says the same thing. Trying to shame them into admitting that they are, in fact, racist, only deepens their entrenchment, and their mistrust and resentment of their accusers.

Some will object that this plan “normalizes” Sessions. Here’s the thing: Sessions is already normal. He’s a Senator. He’s been a Senator since 1997. And it’s not like we are just finding out now that he might be kind of racist. To many voters, Democrats saying Sessions is “not normal” suggests not that Sessions is an extremist, but that Democrats are “out of touch elites” who don’t know what “normal” is. Democrats need a different rhetorical strategy, one that allows them to fight racism without alienating white voters.

If Democrats argue that racist statements from the 80s and earlier make Sessions unqualified for Attorney General, many white voters will view this as yet another example of political correctness run amok. They won’t be entirely wrong. What disqualifies Sessions is not those racist statements, repulsive as they are. It’s that we, the American public, cannot trust him to enforce the law fairly. That is an interest that all Americans share, and Democrats should argue as clearly as possible that this is the interest they are representing.