Reading and misreading Eric Holder’s call to discuss race
I was on the Mike Signorile Show today and we discussed recent comments made by Attorney General Eric Holder at an event at the Justice Department in honor of Black History Month:
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in two many ways, a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issue in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.
…And we, in this room, bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example, the Department of Justice — this Department of Justice — as long as I’m here, must and will leave the nation to the new birth of freedom so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty, this is our solemn responsibility.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard these remarks because, as regular readers know, I frequently blog about why it’s sometimes hard to speak freely and frankly about race in American society. I can’t stand the seeing the term “post-racial” tossed around out there as truth, particularly when referring to the past election cycle or now that Barack Obama is president. I think we have plenty of evidence that we have a long way to go on the matter. I thought Holder was refreshingly frank; we all have fears of broaching the subject — and the problem is not just on the right side of the aisle.
Take Maureen Dowd’s reaction to Holder’s comments; apparently the use of the word “coward” sent her into a paranoid tirade:
Yet Obama is oozing empathy compared with his attorney general, who last week called us “a nation of cowards” about race.
…We need leaders to help us through our crises, not provide us with crude evaluations of our character. And we don’t need sermons from liberal virtuecrats, anymore than from conservative virtuecrats.
…In the middle of all the Heimlich maneuvers required now — for the economy, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, health care, the environment and education — we don’t need a Jackson/Sharpton-style lecture on race. Barack Obama’s election was supposed to get us past that.
Wow, where was the lecture, where was the sermon? I take it that the “Jackson/Sharpton” reference is shorthand for “those blacks from the old school who lay a guilt trip on whitey.” Talk about dog whistles. Moreover, Holder was addressing ALL of us, not just white folks. I took his statement as inclusive. We are all responsible for the silence. You see, in Dowd’s mind, Holder became the Angry Black Man when he said that; it blew away the post-racial fantasy she loved clinging to. One has to wonder — in the wake of the unbelievable New York Post cartoon — why she didn’t get a reality check last week. As I said to Mike, the truth is, she reacted viscerally, and became defensive and transmitted it through her keyboard.
So did right-winger Jonah Goldberg, who called Holder’s statement “both hackneyed and reprehensible.” His reaction to Holder’s comments is even more absurd — and revealing. Read it below the fold. Goldberg:
I think this is nonsense as we talk about race a great, great, great deal in this country. Endless courses in colleges and universities, chapters in high school textbooks, movies, documentaries, after-school-specials and so on are devoted to discussing race. We even have something called “Black History Month” — the occasion for Holder’s remarks to begin with — when America is supposed to spend a month talking about the black experience.
Second, to the extent we don’t talk about race in this country the primary reason is that liberals and racial activists have an annoying habit of attacking anyone who doesn’t read from a liberal script “racists” or, if they’re lucky, “insensitive.”
Someone please change his Pampers; that’s a pantload. Leaving aside the fact that Goldberg feels oppressed because people get to learn more about black history in February, he’s in such a frenzy that he misses Holder’s point — we’re not talking about discussing race on an Ivory Tower panel, with eggheads debating the merits of, say, affirmative action. It’s not about any studies, polls, after-school specials or class readings. The AG said:
we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.
He’s pointing a finger at you and me — you and your neighbor, you and your colleagues at work. We are the ones who fail to engage on the topic of race because we feel so exposed, as I told Mike, afraid of being called stupid, racist or a bigot for simply asking questions out of ignorance and desire to learn, particularly if you don’t have much personal experience with people outside of your race. That’s tough stuff.
How many close black friends — and I don’t mean casual acquaintances — do you think Goldberg has? Somehow, based on that diatribe, he can’t have many. OK, well maybe not if he’s friends with Jesse Lee Peterson.
Human nature makes it hard to reach out; Dowd and Goldberg, who clearly came unglued at Holder’s use of the word “coward” simply dismissed the sentiment and message within it, and even worse, saw affronts that didn’t exist directed solely at whites. But that’s why we have to talk about race. This all cuts both ways, and there’s no shame in admitting there’s a problem and being part of the solution begins in your personal interactions, not pontificating in a paranoid fashion in a column.
I didn’t use the word “coward,” but I did call the American public “lazy” about going outside racial comfort zones in a recent post — and it’s the truth.
It takes effort and desire to expand your life experience by being socially inclusive; quite frankly associating with people who are more like you than less like you is the default of the majority of us. Is it lazy? Yes, but obviously the path of least resistance is human nature. What disturbs me is the lack of curiosity I’ve seen in too many people; they don’t see learning about and learning from people from a different culture or race on a personal level has value for them. Staying in a comfort zone of homogeneity clearly has more value.
How do we own up to and fight our natural impulses in order to better ourselves — and our country?
I couldn’t resist sharing this one reaction to Holder’s address — Faux News talking head Megyn Kelly. Her interpretation is completely over the edge, no doubt reflecting some of the thinking on the right as they went breathless over this part of Holder’s statement.
And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must – and will – lead the nation to the “new birth of freedom” so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.
Protect your keyboards as you watch her discussion with Juan Williams…
KELLY: He said they [the department] has a special responsibility in addressing racial ills. That — that strikes fear down the spines of many conservatives in this country, because they don’t want the Justice Department taking us back to the day when they get heavily involved in things like affirmative action, and things like voter registration rights. […]
WILLIAMS: What you will see I think is more aggressive enforcement in terms of existing civil rights laws. And that was the fear that the existing civil rights laws were not being enforced by the Bush justice department.
KELLY: Well a lot of people thought that the Bush Justice Department sort of got us back to the point where we were — we were being reasonable.
I sh*t you not. The Bush record, particularly about protecting voting rights, is abominable; Holder stood up there that day and meant that the time of inaction and contempt for the rule of law is over. The LA Times reported that from 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. Hello — remember Ohio, with Ken Blackwell’s shenanigans (broken machines and not enough of them in predominantly black precincts)? And all those other states where votes “disappeared”? Please.