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White southern senators agree that it’s hard being a white southern senator

“It does not feel good,” Sessions says of being labeled a racist.

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The last time Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, was up for a federal post, he was famously passed over due to his history of racist remarks. As a senator, Sessions has been staunchly anti-immigration, and has repeatedly opposed legislation designed to reduce racial disparities in criminal justice.

But really, he’s just the victim of reverse racism, he argued at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), at the very end of his questioning, lobbed Sessions a softball question about the difficulty of being a white southern senator.

“I’m from South Carolina. So I know what it’s like sometimes to be accused of being a conservative from the South,” said Graham. “In your case, people have tried fairly promptly to label you as a racist or a bigot or whatever you want to say. How does that make you feel?”

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“Well it does not feel good,” Sessions said. He was interrupted by shouting protesters, who were hauled out of the room by the Capitol police while shouting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” Graham joked about clearing the room for Sessions, prompting a chuckle from the crowd.

“Senator Graham, I appreciate the question,” Sessions continued. “You have a southern name, you come from south Alabama — that sounds worse to some people, south Alabama — and when I came up as a United States attorney I had no real support group. I didn’t prepare myself well in 1986, and there was an organized effort to characterize myself as something that wasn’t true. It was very painful.”

At his 1986 hearing, a black attorney who had worked with Sessions testified that Sessions called him “boy,”and said he joked that the KKK was “OK” except for their drug use. The Senate in 1986 also heard testimony that Sessions had called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” and “communist inspired.” Sessions also came under fire for his actions — specifically, aggressively pursuing a tenuous voter fraud case against civil rights workers registering elderly black voters.

In their exchange, though, Sessions and Graham highlighted Sessions’ pain and discomfort over being called racist instead of examining why he so often stands accused. Instead of responding to his actions and policies, which have had a tangible effect on the lives of Americans of color, Sessions blamed his reputation on being white man from south Alabama.

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“I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate. It wasn’t accurate then and it’s not accurate now,” Sessions continued. “And I just want you to know that as a southerner, who actually saw discrimination and have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way to the people, great millions of people in the south particularly of our country, I know that was wrong. I know we need to do better. We can never go back.”

Notably, Sessions spoke of systemic discrimination as a problem only in the past tense.

As a senator, Sessions has a history of blocking black judges from the bench in Alabama, and he has opposed lawsuits attempting to diversify the state’s courts. He held up the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor because of her work for a Latino civil rights organization. At an anniversary march in Selma, Alabama, Sessions told ThinkProgress that he thought the Supreme Court was correct to gut the Voting Rights Act because of the subsequent improvement in voting rights.

After a key provision of the law was struck down, Republican state legislatures in multiple states pushed through a series of provisions courts have since found were designed to curb black voter turnout, including voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and restrictions on polling places.