Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently invoked "Anglo-American heritage" in an apparently unscripted statement during a speech at the National Sheriffs' Association winter meeting in Washington. "The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement," Sessions said. "We must never erode this historic office."
Could our head of the Department of Justice really be saying something like this? During Black History Month? I decided to investigate the remarks.
And here is what I found.
Supporters have suggested that the term Anglo-American law (aka common law) is a shared legal heritage between England and America. The sheriff is unique to that shared legal heritage. These folks bring up legal writing by Justice Anthony Kennedy that invoke "Anglo American" legal tradition in a 2011 case about the First Amendment Petitions Clause.
Critics have suggested that Session's use of "Anglo-American" implies that law enforcement is inherently the perspective of individuals of white European descent. For those critics, this point of view seems to be helped along by the speech's primary focus on the merits of removing "illegal immigrants" (especially those in the gang MS-13) to curb violent crime.
Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted a quote from her mother's 1986 opposition to Sessions' nomination for a federal judgeship. "The irony of Mr. Sessions' nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods."
Hmm. The jury is still out on this matter. If I looked further, what else would I find?
A Google search revealed a definition of "Anglo-American" that looked like this:
1. relating to both Britain and the US.
The supporters have a point. Anglo-American really is a legal term tying our country to English traditions, of which the office of sheriff is one.
But does the critic's argument have merit?
As it turns out, there is actually a long history of black officers in law enforcement - including sheriffs in the United States. In 1869, Walter Moses Burton became the first elected black sheriff of Fort Bend County, Texas. Addressing the issues of the time, Burton generally had arrests done by a white deputy, but his authority was recognized and respected.
In 1875, Bass Reeves became a U.S. Marshall. Often credited with being the real life Lone Ranger, he was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion and for a short time, rode a white horse. Reeves served the Western District of Arkansas and newspapers reported that he brought in 3,000 felons and killed 14 men.
Today, in Jefferson County, Texas the mantle of sheriff is worn by a woman, a black woman. Zena Stephens is a 27 year veteran law enforcement officer. She won over opponents in three elections by winning not only Democrat but a sizable base of Republican voters. Her bio describes her as a "dynamic" leader seeking to improve the relationship of law enforcement agencies with area citizens.
African American law enforcement officers, including sheriffs, have a long history of advocating for positive change. This began during slavery when select freedman served as officers. Often black officers were hired to fill undesirable positions (or increase manpower) in the early 1900s to 1960s. Today, although black officers are a still a minority at around 12 percent, they are active in opening doors for the next generation of law enforcement.
I am confident that as the head of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions knows this history. He knows that the history of U.S. law enforcement is multicultural, (not just Anglo). I must conclude his use of the phrase is just a lawyer using a pertinent legal term.
He still can't have a pass for this. We must demand that the head of the Department of Justice be aware of the power of words and use them in a culturally competent way. Inadvertently or not, Sessions has offended a lot of people.
He needs to learn from this faux pas and stop doing it.
Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.