WASHINGTON (AP) — Opponents to GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions' selection as attorney general are calling him extremist, anti-immigration and insensitive to civil rights.
But they're refusing to call him racist.
Civil rights groups purposefully are staying away from leveling that loaded term at Sessions, who was rejected for a federal judgeship in the 1980s amid accusations that he had called a black attorney "boy" — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American."
The logic behind this strategy, they say, is to get greater scrutiny paid to Sessions' actions and his record, and reduce the chances that senators who consider Sessions a friend could use allegations of racism against him as a distraction.
"That question is designed to raise a level of heat that turns us away from the facts of his record," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It turns what is supposed to be a professional inquiring into something for them that feels very personal."
Republicans have expressed strong support for Sessions and are expected to secure more than enough votes needed to confirm him as attorney general in President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration.
In a rare maneuver, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — one of three black senators - will testify against Sessions on Wednesday, saying Sessions has a "concerning" record on civil rights and criminal justice reform and that his decision to testify is "a call to conscience." The full Senate will eventually vote on Sessions' confirmation.
Beyond Booker, other black lawmakers tried to focus on the larger picture.
"I don't care whether he's a racist or not," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said of Sessions during a recent news conference held by the Congressional Black Caucus, which counts many Sessions opponents among its 49 members.
When pressed, caucus chair Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., cited actions that Sessions took while serving as a federal prosecutor in Alabama, and positions Sessions currently holds as a senator, including his opposition to what Richmond called criminal justice reform and strengthening the Voting Rights Act.
It is likely that Sessions' opponents adopted this strategy because they are well aware of their audience, said Vanderbilt University political science professor Efrèn Pèrez.
"Immediately throwing a word around like 'bigot,' 'racist' or 'prejudiced' probably is a conversation nonstarter for some individuals," Perez said. "So I think some of the language use is strategic to widen the circle of who you can mobilize to oppose his nomination."
Sessions' nomination to be a federal judge was turned away in 1986 because of allegations of racially charged comments. Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., said in a letter that year that Sessions' actions as a federal prosecutor were "reprehensible" and that he used his office "in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
But Sessions that year vehemently denied charges of racism. "I am not a racist," he said in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions did not repeat those words on Tuesday. But he did tell that same committee the "damnably false" racism accusations were "very painful," and asked to be judged by his record over his two decades in the Senate.
"I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate," Sessions said. "It wasn't accurate then and it's not accurate now."
There are few people in Washington who dislike Sessions personally, especially in the Senate. "Jeff Sessions is the same genuine, fair-minded person in unguarded, private moments as he is in the halls of the Senate," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who introduced Sessions at the beginning of Tuesday's hearings.
That's why Sessions' colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee should move the question out of the realm of the personal, Ifill said.
"Of course it matters whether he's a racist or not, but is that the question that's before them?" Ifill said. "The question that's before them is whether he's fit, prepared and qualified to be the chief enforcer of the nation's civil rights laws, and the nation's laws."
If this strategy succeeds, it could mean an acknowledgment that just accusing someone of racism doesn't have the power it used to, especially in a country where cries of reverse racism are rampant, Perez said. "It is not automatic winning of the moral high ground anymore," he said.
However, that does not mean applying the term "racist" has completely lost its effectiveness, said Larry E. Davis, a University of Pittsburgh professor and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems. Protesters calling Sessions a racist repeatedly interrupted the hearing and were hustled out by Capitol police.
"There are people who would like to normalize being called a racist, but the word is still powerful," Davis said.
Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jessejholland.