Attorney General Jeff Sessions veered from his prepared remarks to hail the “Anglo-American heritage” of law enforcement.
“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 elected process,” Mr Sessions told a National Sheriffs Association meeting, adding “the office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement”.
The invocation of Anglo-American roots appears to have been an impromptu decision, with a copy of Mr Sessions’ prepared remarks reading: “The Sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage”.
Much of America’s legal system derives from English law, and the word “sheriff” is believed to come from a centuries-old system that prevailed in England: units of local government known as “shires” were overseen by “reeves”, and the combination eventually turned into “sheriff”. A Justice Department official serving under Barack Obama referenced the “Anglo-American common law system” during a 2016 speech.
But Mr Sessions’ choice of words drew accusations of racism from around the internet, with some commenters arguing that America’s top law enforcement official had asserted a link between law enforcement and white supremacy.
In case you forgot that our justice system is rooted in white supremacy:— Charlotte Alter (@CharlotteAlter) February 12, 2018
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at Sheriff's Association meeting, just now: "The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement" https://t.co/X6yz8DNcSL
Do you know anyone who says “Anglo-American heritage” in a sentence? What could possibly be the purpose of saying that other than to pit Americans against each other? For the chief law enforcement officer to use a dog whistle like that is appalling. Best NO vote I ever cast.— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) February 12, 2018
Jeff Sessions did a speech and said "the office of Sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement." He wanted to go on record with the ANGLO-AMERICAN description. He went full white supremacy, and every Black and non-white sheriff should be insulted pic.twitter.com/F0PYS5j7es— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) February 12, 2018
The selection of Mr Sessions as Attorney General drew criticism from detractors who pointed out that in 1986, the Senate rejected his nomination to be a federal judge amid accusations of racism. He was said to have called civil rights organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) “un-American” and to have said the NAACP “hates white people”.
Mr Sessions has strenuously denied holding racist views and noted during his confirmation hearing that he prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I did not harbour the kind of animosity and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of,” Mr Sessions said.
Donald Trump also faced accusations of racism earlier this year when he railed against America accepting immigrants from what he reportedly called "s***hole" countries, and questioned why America didn’t accept more immigrants from countries like Norway, which is overwhelmingly white.