In case you missed it over the holiday weekend and amidst all the press about President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, you might want to check out Thomas Sugrue’s column about Jeff Sessions.
Thomas Sugrue, a 20th century urban historian, won the Bancroft Prize in American History in 1998 for The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. A passage from Sugrue’s preface to the book’s 2005 Classic Edition demonstrates the depth of Sugrue’s grasp of the role of race and inequality—subjects deeply connected to the rise of Donald Trump and to Jeff Sessions, about whom Sugrue will tell us more in a few moments.
Sugrue’s specialty is race and inequality in the North. In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he explains: “Despite more than half a century of civil rights activism and changing racial attitudes, American cities (particularly the old industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest) remain deeply divided by race. Poverty rates among people of color in major American cities are staggeringly high. Vast tracts of urban land lie pockmarked with boarded-up buildings, abandoned houses, and rubble-strewn lots. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of acres of marshland, meadow, farm, and forest on the periphery of major metropolitan areas get gobbled up each year for vast tracts of new housing, shopping malls, and office parks. City governments struggle with shrinking tax bases and ever-increasing demands on public services, while wealthy suburban municipalities enjoy strong property tax revenues, excellent public services, and superb schools.” Sugrue defines three forces whose “combined effect… reshaped American cities in ways that still affect us today. First was the flight of jobs, particularly the relatively well-paying secure, and mostly unionized industrial jobs that dominated the postwar urban economy. Second was the persistence of workplace discrimination despite remarkable legal and political gains accomplished by the struggle for black civil rights. The third was intractable racial segregation in housing, segregation that led to the uneven distribution of power and resources in metropolitan areas, leaving some places behind while others thrived.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis, pp. xvii-xviii)
While Donald Trump directed his campaign to mostly white small town and rural voters, the inequality and racial divisions Sugrue describes constitute the foundation for much of the resentment to which Trump appealed—including bitterness in and around metropolitan Rustbelt cities. The bigotry and anger the campaign encouraged created an opening for Trump to nominate a Southern racist to enforce our civil rights laws as Attorney General.
In last week’s column, Sugrue reminds us that Jeff Sessions was nominated by Ronald Reagan as a federal judge, although Sessions was eventually denied confirmation: “In 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee torpedoed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. As sworn testimony there revealed, Mr. Sessions, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, had referred to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… as ‘un-American’ and ‘Communist inspired.’ He had joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ‘O.K.’ until he discovered some of its members smoked pot, and had accused a white attorney who supported voting rights of being a race traitor.”
Sugrue traces Sessions’ racism much deeper than statements decrying civil rights organizations and extolling the Ku Klux Klan, however. As elected attorney general in Alabama during the 1990s, Sessions did his best to kill school funding reform that would have expanded educational opportunity for Alabama’s poorest children—most of them African American: “(B)y the early 1990s, huge disparities in funding separated Alabama’s haves and have-nots. Alabama’s wealthiest school district (and also one of its whitest), Mountain Brook, in suburban Birmingham, spent nearly twice as much per student as the state’s poorest, Roanoke, in a declining manufacturing town about two hours southeast. Poor schools often lacked even rudimentary facilities, including science labs. They struggled to pay teachers, even to repair dilapidated school buses. Half of Alabama’s school buildings lacked air conditioning. Underfunded schools had a particularly hard time meeting the needs of disabled students, whom they were required to support under federal law.”
After a lawsuit was filed by 30 plaintiff school districts and a number of civil rights and disability advocacy groups, Judge Eugene W. Reese found Alabama’s system of funding schools unconstitutional and demanded a remedy. As Alabama’s Attorney General, however, Jeff Sessions led the fight against equalizing school funding. “Mr. Sessions was lauded by fellow Republicans for his efforts. They saw funding inequities as part of the natural order of things, not as a problem to be remedied. Any remedy would entail either the redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer districts or an increase in taxes. Both positions run against the small-government, privatization dogma that Mr. Sessions promoted.”
Sessions used his position as Attorney General to launch his campaign for the U.S. Senate, but eventually Judge Reese’s decision prevailed in Alabama. The court, however, left it up to Alabama’s legislature to design what became the most minimal remedy.
Sugrue understands that institutional and structural racism can have even deeper consequences than words of support for the Ku Klux Klan and critiques of the NAACP: “Alabama’s public schools, still underfunded, still separate and unequal, ranked near the bottom nationally, stand as one of Jeff Sessions’ most enduring legacies.”
As Donald Trump becomes President, the deep and enduring structural issues Sugrue explores in The Origins of the Urban Crisis remain with us. These concerns were hardly touched upon in the recent presidential campaign, despite Trump’s preoccupation with bringing back coal and some kind of fantasy about making big industrial manufacturing great again.