Does Jeff Sessions Have a Problem With Black People?

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions leaves for a short break during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee November 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

An exchange between a congresswoman and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which has gone viral in the 24 hours since a key Judiciary Committee hearing, shows that the Justice Department head is committed to targeting black activists while ignoring the danger posed by white supremacists, advocates said.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Representative Karen Bass asked Sessions if he was aware of a FBI counterterrorism report that looked into "black identity extremist groups" that were targeting law enforcement officers.

Sessions said he hadn't read the report, but that he was "aware that there are groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists."

Bass, a black Congresswoman from Los Angeles, then asked if the FBI had conducted a similar investigation into "white identity extremist groups."

Sessions said he was unaware of any such reports.

Many activists latched onto the exchange as evidence of a double-standard.

"It's deeply concerning that a report of this importance could be assembled without the Attorney General knowing about it or reading it," Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, told Newsweek. "It raises the specter of him not having African-Americans' best interests in mind."

Sessions, a former Senator from Alabama, has faced questions about race throughout his entire career in public office. In 1986, the Senate Judicial Committee denied his nomination for a federal judgeship for, among other things, joking about the Ku Klux Klan being "ok guys" and saying that the NAACP was "un-American."

These allegations resurfaced during his Attorney General confirmation hearings earlier this year. Sessions denied being a racist and pledged to serve without prejudice.

But once in office, Sessions angered blacks and low-income Americans by changing an Obama-era policy that allowed prosecutors to use their own judgment in filing charges rather than resport to "mandatory minimum" laws that, experts say, disproptionately affect black and Latino defendants.

That topic didn't come up on Tuesday, as Bass and her colleagues focused on the FBI's "black identity extremists" report, which was written in August and warns that black groups are targeting police officers in the aftermath of police killings of black children and young men.

"It is very likely Black Identity Extremist perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence," reads the report, which was swiftly criticized by the NAACP and other civic groups for conflating non-violent groups like Black Lives Matter with other violent, separatists groups on the basis of both of them taking their black identity seriously.

Critics say the FBI should instead be tracking white supremacists, given that they have killed 34 police officers between 2001 and 2016—more than left-wing extremists and terrorists combined.

"In a time when white supremacists are marching down city streets with loaded weapons and tiki torches—organizing rallies of terror around the country—it comes as a great shock that the FBI would decide to target black identity groups protesting police brutality and their right to exist free of harm as a threat," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said when the report was released by Foreign Policy in October.

Johnson also said that the FBI has "a history of targeting black civil rights groups and leaders," such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton, a Black Panther activist shot and killed by FBI agents in his Chicago home in 1969.

Those concerns were also cited in a letter by the Congressional Black Caucus to the FBI.

"As you are no doubt aware, the FBI has a troubling history of utilizing its broad investigatory powers to target black citizens," the letter reads. "Against this backdrop, the [CBC] cannot help but be concerned about the aforementioned intelligence assessment."

The FBI has not made an official comment about the report.