President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night, in combination with Senate hearings for Alabama senator and attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions on Tuesday afternoon, presents a stark example of America’s schizophrenic racial landscape.
The nation’s first black president delivers a rhetorical valediction of his legacy against the backdrop of one of the most fraught and tense racial climates in recent American history. From one perspective, Obama’s legacy serves as both a reflecting pool of both the grandeur and travails of American history, especially its tumultuous journey from slavery to freedom. Obama’s highest political achievements seem to chart the undeniable rise of racial progress, a trajectory that can be further witnessed in the growth of the black middle class, and the visible success of high-profile black entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians, athletes, artists and celebrities.
President Obama should certainly be applauded for rescuing the American economy from the brink of oblivion, passing health care legislation that gave tens of millions access to insurance for the first time, appointing two attorneys general who championed criminal justice reform, and being a passionate advocate for the environment, marriage equality, equal pay for women and LGBTQ issues.
Yet Obama proved, for good reasons his supporters would claim, ruthlessly cautious on matters of racial justice, preferring to quietly promote equal opportunity through surrogates in the Justice Department or Cabinet and sweeping gestures that ranged from a stirring speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march to the opening keynote to the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History. He served as racial healer in chief in the aftermath of the shooting massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and reflected sadly that “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin.” Beyond these symbolic moments, Obama’s leadership on matters of black equality remained too often invisible or reactionary.
Obama’s presidency has also served as a fun-house mirror on matters of race and across the policy spectrum, one whose distortions have allowed critics to view his presidency as illegitimate, subversive and a blight on the very idea of American democracy.
Furthering the ironic twist of calendrical fate that now ties him together with President Obama, Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s hand-picked choice to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcement officials, fits squarely in this camp. The political genealogy of Jeff Sessions can be traced back to both the Redeemer South, where Reconstruction’s aftermath gave rise to the “strange fruit” of black bodies swinging on trees from organized racial terror and the Massive Resistance (in a term coined by Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia) of Eisenhower-era whites on citizens’ councils and elsewhere, who colluded with local, state, and at times federal officials to deny black folk good jobs, schools, neighborhoods, voting rights and citizenship.
Jeff Sessions and his nomination represent one element in America’s neoconfederacy, which encompasses diverse strands of political and ideological thought united by overt and passive advocacy of institutional racism and the corresponding benefits of white privilege and power. Three decades ago, Sessions’ history of racial intolerance denied him a federal judgeship after witnesses testified that he privately expressed admiration for the Klan and characterized the NAACP as a communist-inspired organization. Today, Sessions exemplifies the fact that racial progress in America is not linear. Despite his record of both racial animus and support for policy initiatives such as suppressive voter ID laws that negatively impact African-Americans, his confirmation is virtually assured.
The contemporary political atmosphere of distortion on racial matters is perfectly suited to Sessions, a man with a Cheshire cat smile whose genteel denials during his opening Senate hearings obscured the fact that the same man denied a seat on the federal bench in one era is about to lead the entire DOJ in our own, darker time.
Other than the striking juxtaposition of Sessions’ hearings and Obama’s farewell speech, the best evocation of the tension that produced Barack Obama and Jeff Sessions in the post-civil rights era is found in the recent documentary, “Black American Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” a four-hour series from Henry Louis Gates Jr. that examines the almost Dickensian state of race relations since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination.
Both examples underscore the reality that contemporary American politics represents an unseemly mashup of several historical eras interwoven and unspooling right before our very eyes. Obama’s presidency partially fulfilled the ambitious hopes and civic dreams of both the Reconstruction era, a period that offered up the tantalizing possibility of racial equality and deep democracy, and the civil rights movement’s heroic period, when activists bled for democracy in the street of American cities and died in a quest to expand the meaning of citizenship.
President Obama and Sen. Sessions exemplify two divergent interpretations and realities of American history, one that most citizens have yet to fully comprehend but that can be seen all around us if we only care to look. The greatest living symbol of America’s racial progress leaves office just as one of the most vocal champions of states rights and an alleged sympathizer of the Klan enters the national stage to become attorney general. For American race relations, this represents not so much a glaring contradiction than business as usual, although this time done before the disbelieving eyes of a stunned world.