When White Males Have "Empathy"

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There is perhaps no one who knows the cost of "selective empathy" better than Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. It's the reason his own nomination to the federal court died in the Senate 23 years ago.  

Long before the Belizean Grove found its groove, Sessions was on the stand himself, defending his nomination against claims that he practiced a form of "selective empathy" as old as the United States itself: the kind where white men can only find compassion for other white men. Accusations of racial insensitivity and prejudice dominated the 1986 hearings.

At the hearing, witnesses testified that Sessions had referred to the NAACP and the ACLU as "un-American," called a black assistant U.S. attorney "boy," and made flattering remarks about the Ku Klux Klan during an investigation about a lynching. Sessions denied the charges that he was racist, said that he was "one of the good guys," and argued that his comments were made in jest.

This week, Sessions was responsible for cross-examining the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court. Talk about an elephant in a hearing room.

There is nothing secret about the senator's background. In 1986, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and scores of other publications covered the Sessions hearings.

On May 7, 1986, The New York Times reported that some senators were concerned about Sessions's objectivity. "A number of senators said today that they felt Mr. Sessions was qualified to be a judge but questioned whether he would be impartial," the story read.

One of those senators would later become the vice president of the United States. Joe Biden was the senior Democrat on the committee, and one of Sessions's most vocal critics. "I consider his statements to be inappropriate for someone holding public office and seeking a lifetime appointment to the bench," Biden told The New York Times.

The committee killed his nomination. But it didn't end there. Sessions went on to become an attorney general in Alabama, where his agenda continued to attract controversy for its racial preoccupations.

In 2002, The New Republic profiled Sessions in a story entitled, "The Senator Who's Worse Than Trent Lott." The piece was damning, especially in its telling of Sessions's failed prosecution of three civil rights workers for voter fraud in Alabama.  

"The year before his nomination to federal court, he had unsuccessfully prosecuted three civil rights workers--including Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.--on a tenuous case of voter fraud. The three had been working in the 'Black Belt' counties of Alabama, which, after years of voting white, had begun to swing toward black candidates as voter registration drives brought in more black voters. Sessions' focus on these counties to the exclusion of others caused an uproar among civil rights leaders, especially after hours of interrogating black absentee voters produced only 14 allegedly tampered ballots out of more than 1.7 million cast in the state in the 1984 election."

This story has disappeared. The Republican Party's central opposition to the nomination was rooted in the concern that Sotomayor is unable to be fair or impartial, values that, in the words of Sessions himself, "are at the core of the American experience." If the GOP was concerned that its efforts would be undermined by pesky questions about how the senator's own biases might influence his questioning of Sotomayor, they didn't have to be. This week, nearly every major news organization failed to recall the senator's long, inconvenient relationship with bias.

Given his history, it's bizarre to watch Jeff Sessions grill Sonia Sotomayor on the finer points of judicial impartiality.

"Aren't you saying there that you expect your background and--and heritage to influence your decision-making?" Sessions asked the judge earlier this week, as concerns over bias and "empathy" framed Republicans' questioning.

With a solid Democratic majority, no one expected the hearings to be groundbreaking. On Sunday, Sessions said he wouldn't try to derail Sotomayor's nomination, but that the hearing would be an "educational moment." He was right. Sotomayor is sure to be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice of the United States. And we have learned that, like "empathy," amnesia too can be selective.

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