Wed 18 Feb, 2009
Tags: Black history month, Eric Holder, Racial prejudice, Racial segregation
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech recognizing Black History Month, has told employees at the Justice Department that the U.S. is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race relations.
Holder, the first black attorney general in the nation’s history, explained that “this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past” and that, if we are to make progress in race relations, “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.”
In words which strongly echo a line of my father’s from Traces of the Trade,Holder opined that “we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”
It seems to me that this is broadly true, and especially so when it comes to certain issues like the historical impact of slavery and racial discrimination and the hard truths about race in the U.S. today. This is also a truth which varies tremendously from person to person: I know many people who speak frankly and naturally about race and across racial lines; others who are utterly unable to have an honest conversation about race, especially with those of other races; and a great many people who fall somewhere in between. For instance, my uncle, Dain Perry, who also appears in the film, will frequently tell audiences that there are “two Americas,” one white and one black, and that we simply do not talk to one another.
Holder went on to explain, according to a partial transcript, that in order to “respect one another, we must have a basic understanding of one another”:
This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful, but the rewards are, I believe, potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction, but that in reality, accomplishes very little.
Speaking specifically of the role of Black History Month, Holder said that we should use this time “to not only commemorate black history, but also to foster a period of dialogue between the races.”
Holder then elaborated on the proper way to look at what is traditionally considered “black history”:
[W]e must endeavor to integrate black history into our culture and into our curriculums in ways in which it has never occurred before, so that the study of black history, and a recognition of the contributions of black Americans becomes common place.
But we have to recognize that until black history is included in the standard curriculum in all of schools and becomes a regular part of all of our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty; relatively unimportant and not as weighty as true American history.
While Holder’s most inflammatory words are sure to provoke outrage among those disinclined to agree with him, his speech as a whole was notably reasonable and balanced. Early in his remarks, for instance, he described race as “an issue that we have never been at ease with, and given our nation’s history, this is in some way, understandable.” He went on to say that there could be legitimate debate about such racially-charged issues as affirmative action, and he said that such debate should be “nuanced, principled and spirited.”
In perhaps his most telling remark, Holder urged moderate, thoughtful dialogue on issues of race by all Americans, and not merely by those with an axe to grind:
[T]he conversation we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic, and left to those on the extremes, who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own self worth or narrow self-interest.
Holder also called it “truly sad” that while many Americans experience integrated workplace environments, all too often they exist in their free time in self-segregated, “race-protected cocoons.”
Hat tip: Dain Perry