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Atty. Gen. Eric Holder sees U.S. as 'a nation of cowards'

Some interesting opening remarks today by the new attorney general, Eric Holder.

In an address to employees at the Justice Department (see full text below), Holder suggested the United States is "essentially a nation of cowards" that hasn't made much progress in the last 50 years.

He criticized shopping malls as "race-protected cocoons," for instance, and said the U.S. remains segregated on Saturdays and Sundays.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," said Holder, "in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." He said Americans do not talk enough about race, and that Black History Month was a good time to start.

Holder is a former federal judge. He the the first African American attorney general, chosen by President  Barack Obama, also an African American. Holder said Obama's presidential campaign presented the country with a historic test of whether it would accept a black man as commander in chief.

Obama was overwhelmingly elected Nov. 4 by that same nation, an event interpreted by many as a sign of racial progress.

We have the complete Holder speech text down below. And our blogging buddy Mark Silva has more on the story over at the Swamp.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Remarks by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder at the Department of Justice marking Black History Month, Feb. 18:

Every year, in February, we attempt to recognize and to appreciate black history. It is a worthwhile endeavor, for the contributions of African Americans to this great nation are numerous and significant. Even as we fight a war against terrorism, deal with the reality of electing an African American as our president for the first time and deal with the other significant issues of the day, the need to confront our racial past, and our racial present, and to understand the history of African people in this country, endures. One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially 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 issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.

It is an issue we have never been at ease with, and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. 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.

We commemorated five years ago the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And though the world in which we now live is fundamentally different than that which existed then, this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have.

To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race. And so I would suggest that we use February of every year to not only commemorate black history but also to foster a period of dialog among the races. This is admittedly an artificial device to generate discussion that should come more naturally, but our history is such that we must find ways to force ourselves to confront that which we have become expert at avoiding.

As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.

And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago.

This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle, it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.

As a nation we should use Black History Month as a means to deal with this continuing problem. By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character-based acceptance can actually be realized. To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another.

And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little. Imagine if you will situations where people -- regardless of their skin color -- could confront racial issues freely and without fear. The potential of this country, that is becoming increasingly diverse, would be greatly enhanced.

I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us." There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation that 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 narrow self interest.

Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race-protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made.

If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted -- and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about 50 years -- the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely -- and to do so now.

As I indicated before, the artificial device that is Black History Month is a perfect vehicle for the beginnings of such a dialogue. And so I urge all of you to use the opportunity of this month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters. In this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America.

It is also clear that if we are to better understand one another, the study of black history is essential because the history of black America and the history of this nation are inextricably tied to each other. It is for this reason that the study of black history is important to everyone -- black or white. For example, the history of the United States in the 19th century revolves around a resolution of the question of how America was going to deal with its black inhabitants.

The great debates of that era and the war that was ultimately fought are all centered around the issue of, initially, slavery and then the Reconstruction of the vanquished region. A dominant domestic issue throughout the 20th century was, again, America's treatment of its black citizens. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s changed America in truly fundamental ways. Americans of all colors were forced to examine basic beliefs and long-held views.

Even so, most people who are not conversant with history still do not really comprehend the way in which that movement transformed America. In racial terms the country that existed before the civil rights struggle is almost unrecognizable to us today. Separate public facilities, separate entrances, poll taxes, legal discrimination, forced labor, in essence an American apartheid, all were part of an America that the movement destroyed.

To attend her state’s taxpayer-supported college in 1963, my late sister-in-law had to be escorted to class by United States marshals and past the state’s governor, George Wallace. That frightening reality seems almost unthinkable to us now. The civil rights movement made America, if not perfect, better.

In addition, the other major social movements of the latter half of the 20th century -- feminism, the nation's treatment of other minority groups, even the antiwar effort -- were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality.

Those other movements may have occurred in the absence of the civil rights struggle, but the fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment. Further, many of the tactics that were used by these other groups were developed in the civil rights movement.

And today the link between the black experience and this country is still evident. While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken.

Our inner cities are still too conversant with crime, but the level of fear generated by that crime, now found in once quiet, and now electronically padlocked suburbs is alarming and further demonstrates that our past, present and future are linked. It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society.

Black history is extremely important because it is American history. Given this, it is in some ways sad that there is a need for a black history month. Though we are all enlarged by our study and knowledge of the roles played by blacks in American history, and though there is a crying need for all of us to know and acknowledge the contributions of black America, a black history month is a testament to the problem that has afflicted blacks throughout our stay in this country. Black history is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment by our society in general and by our educational institutions in particular.

As a former American history major, I am struck by the fact that such a major part of our national story has been divorced from the whole. In law, culture, science, athletics, industry and other fields, knowledge of the roles played by blacks is critical to an understanding of the American experiment. For too long we have been too willing to segregate the study of black history.

There is clearly a need at present for a device that focuses the attention of the country on the study of the history of its black citizens. But we 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, become commonplace. Until that time, Black History Month must remain an important, vital concept.

But we have to recognize that until black history is included in the standard curriculum in our schools and becomes a regular part of all our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty, relatively unimportant and not as weighty as so called "real" American history.

I, like many in my generation, have been fortunate in my life and have had a great number of wonderful opportunities. Some may consider me to be a part of black history. But we do a great disservice to the concept of black history recognition if we fail to understand that any success that I have had, cannot be viewed in isolation.

I stood, and stand, on the shoulders of many other black Americans. Admittedly, the identities of some of these people, through the passage of time, have become lost to us -- the men, and women, who labored long in fields, who were later legally and systemically discriminated against, who were lynched by the hundreds in the century just past and those others who have been too long denied the fruits of our great American culture.

The names of too many of these people, these heroes and heroines, are lost to us. But the names of others of these people should strike a resonant chord in the historical ear of all in our nation: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Charles Drew, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Vivian Malone, Rosa Parks, Marion Anderson, Emmit Till.

These are just some of the people who should be generally recognized and are just some of the people to whom all of us, black and white, owe such a debt of gratitude. It is on their broad shoulders that I stand as I hope that others will someday stand on my more narrow ones.

Black history is a subject worthy of study by all our nation's people. Blacks have played a unique, productive role in the development of America. Perhaps the greatest strength of the United States is the diversity of its people, and to truly understand this country one must have knowledge of its constituent parts. But an unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force.

An appreciation of the unique black past, acquired through the study of black history, will help lead to understanding and true compassion in the present, where it is still so sorely needed, and to a future where all of our people are truly valued. Thank you.

Comments () | Archives (21)

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Eric Holder you are the coward! You fail to see the quality and equality in all people! You only look at tone race...your race!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eric Holder, you' couldn't shine Bobby Kennedy's shoes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Perhaps Mr. Holder is projecting. My circle of friends is pretty inclusive. My California neighborhood is rather diverse, as was my DC neighborhood in my younger years. Good grief!!! Mr. Holder needs to diversify his friends and relations and join the 21st century. Didn't this very "nation of cowards" just elect a black President?

Holder is a perpetrator of "racism". We're all of the same race: the human race. There is NO black race. It's a myth. People need to talk more about this. Skin color is simply a human characteristic. Martin Luther King Jr. was way ahead of his time. It's too bad that "race baiters" of all colors JUST DON'T GET IT! They thrive on human division. It's a shame.

White people cannot discuss race without being accused of racism, Mr. Holder. That's why we don't discuss it. As far as racial progress in the last fifty years, when I was a child water fountains and restrooms in Louisiana were designated "Men, Women and Coloreds."I guess we have made progress. Funny how you're not making these comments as a porter or shoeshine boy, but as Attorney General. I guess that indicates a bit of progress, too. Of course, there will never be equality until the President....oops, I guess that happened too, didn't it?

Holder is wrong.

We have elected a con-artist who appoints tax cheats and bloviating fools.

What Holder was referring to was that white people are cowards for not discussing race. Black people discuss it all the time, just read the news or listen to Holder's bizarre speech. What he's suggesting is that white people really tell black people what they think of their so called 'progress' in this country. Hey, as long as Holder promises to prosecute all the pissed off black people who've decided to 'speak' back to white people with their fists, this sounds like a swell idea. What he's really inferring is that we're in for another 4 years of mind-control by the government. What a can't make people like or hang out with eachother on the weekends if they really don't want to. It's bad enough with all the 8-A contracts, college admission preferences and forced integration at work, now he says we have to sociallize with eachother too. Great.

What a hypocrite. I would love to tell this racist what I really think of him and his race.

OK. Let's have a conversation:
I say I don't believe in reparations. Response: It's because I'm a racist.
I say I don't believe in affirmative action. Response: It's because I'm a racist.
I say I don't think two of our greatest presidents should be stuffed into a common holiday and one day be given to MLK. Response: It's because I'm a racist.
I say that the mess in African-American neighborhoods is self-inflicted and has nothing to do with white racism. Response: It's because I'm a racist.
Well, Mr. AG . . . ?

Cowards? This from the Clinton-subservient lackey who undermined justice, betrayed his country and abused his authority to facilitate presidential pardons for terrorists and thieves in exchange for political support for Hillary and money for Bill. I will look elsewhere for ethical and moral advice.

This speech does nothing more than divide us further. How dare he say we are a country of cowards! Who does he think he is? And it's "voluntary social segregation" - on both sides. Isn't it my right to live where I want and others to live where they want? Don't I have the right to befriend who I want?

There is no other country in the world that has the diversity that we have here. We have done an excellent job of living together. There are hateful people, but there will always be hateful people.

I think Mr. Holder is totally out of touch with the real America.

Hey Eric go back to prosecuting traffic tickets! Or better yet take a Retreat to a Bill Cosby Seminar. Reconstruction is over. So are the Sixties. Get over it and get a life. I bet I had as many black friends as you and all we whites get is your same tired old BS to put us in guilt trip mode. NOT ANYMORE! We're sick and tired of this claptrap . Try prosecuting your SEn Burris and the Tax cheat at Treasury and give them a little guilt trip malaise. As for me , I'm with the rest of America when it comes to your racial overkill.

That just about does it for me! I've been tolerant over the years watching my tax money spent on 15 year old single 'moms' with 3 kids, drug-addicted teens and ultimately criminals with no chance of rehabilitation. Affirmative action, giving jobs, university spots and favorable grades simply because of the color of a person's skin.
America has elected a black man as president and is then accused of being cowardly and not discussing race to this new AG's satisfaction.

Hey Eric Holder can I have lunch with you?, that will fill my quota of having lunch with a black person!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

White man talking here: Here's an idea to help both white and black Americans have ample reason to respect each other even more, socialize with each other even more, and lead healthier lives: let's bilaterally condemn the asinine, mindless, hostile, misanthropic, antisocial form of "musical" entertainment commonly referred to as "hip-hop."
And my sincere thanks to Bill Cosby for leading the way.

Most of the churches in my small Texas city that have a congregation larger than 200 enjoy a mix of races in attendance. And of course, it's not segregated.

All of the malls I've ever been in here have people of every race in them as customers and as employees. They are never segregated. There is no 'black night' or 'white night'.

The man is a lying SACK. That's all there is to it. He started out with a false premise--as most liberals and pseudo-conservatives do--and expects us to swallow it whole, without so much as a "wait a minute..."

This country is not a nation of cowards. It is a nation of (mostly) fools. Fool because even though we have control who runs our government, we keep electing liberal (and pseudo-conservative) scumbags.

Hey Holder: We voted for a Black man!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Amen to Jerry: America has elected a black man as president and is then accused of being cowardly and not discussing race to this new AG's satisfaction.

He proved his point. You can't have a conversation about race because "some" people get all sensitive and start focusing on the delivery and not the substance. It's amazing that in order to have a discussion on race you have to make "some" people feel "comfortable". Give me a break and take a big people pill people... (aka cowards)



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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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