Attorney General Jeff Sessions set off the Social Media Warrior Racism Alert™ today when he referred to the “Angl0-American heritage” of the office of sheriff in remarks he gave at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference early today in Washington, D.C. As with so many stories about the Trump administration, critics were quick to declare Sessions racist.
The controversy comes from a section of Sessions’ speech where he was discussing the value of placing law enforcement in the hands of someone who is elected by the people:
Since our founding, the independently elected Sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people, through the elective process. The office of Sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.
According to the written remarks as prepared for delivery that are posted on the Department of Justice website, the “Anglo-American heritage” comment was not in the original text, which read as follows:
Since our founding, the independently elected Sheriff has been seen as the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and amenable to the people. The Sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.
OK. So what’s this about? What did Sessions really mean with his apparently ad-libbed addition?
As CNN noted, the word “sheriff” and the office itself do have historic roots in England:
The concept of the office of sheriff — being an independent, elected law enforcement entity — originates in Anglo-Saxon England. The word “sheriff” combines the Anglo-Saxon words “shire,” meaning “county,” and “reeve,” meaning “guardian,” Cato analyst David Kopel notes in The Washington Post.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “Anglo-American” as “relating to both Britain and the US” or “of English descent, but born or living in the US.”
For obvious reasons, this implies English-speaking and, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition indicates, European descent (an “Anglo-American” is “an inhabitant of the U.S. of English origin or descent,” or “a North American whose native language is English and especially whose culture or ethnic background is of European origin.”).
In other words, Sessions was not necessarily saying “white” heritage by saying “Anglo-American,” but that is how it’s being interpreted.
Sessions is technically right that the word “sheriff” is an Anglo-American word. We derive both our language and our legal system from Britain, and again, Sessions is also correct that the office of sheriff as an elected law enforcement position is indeed an important part of America’s legal heritage, and ties in directly to the constitutional principles like due process that place strong limits on government’s power to deprive us of liberty. That is a virtuous heritage and one in which we should rightfully have pride.
Whether or not you think Sessions was being racist most likely depends on your political allegiances. Pointing out that the office of “sheriff” has historical roots in England is a historical fact, but of course England and and the United States are not the only countries to have developed systems of justice and law enforcement. Other countries would use different words than “sheriff” for this role, because — shocker! — they don’t all speak English.
The real issue is why diverge from the prepared remarks to say something that would invoke such a predictable reaction? The original prepared remarks were accurate and avoided this controversy. Sessions’ speech this morning should have been a boring, unremarkable appearance that might get a paragraph write-up here or there but otherwise go completely unnoticed.
But instead we have Yet Another Distraction created by a member of the Trump administration. Is this to divert attention away from the President’s ongoing efforts to dig the White House into a deeper hole on the Rob Porter scandal?
Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018
Was he hoping to distract from the continuing criticism over his revanchist views on drug policy? Who knows.
Speaking clearly and with intention is not bowing to political correctness; it’s good strategy to ensure that your ideas and goals are communicated properly. It would be helpful if the Trump administration could learn this lesson.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.