Eric Holder wants to talk about ‘subtle’ discrimination. This is what he means.


Attorney General Eric Holder speaks about the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the Morgan State University commencement on May 17. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines over the weekend (see also: here, here and here) simply for articulating a truth that often goes unacknowledged by public officials. Racial inequality persists in America, he told the graduating class at Morgan State University, in forms that are less visible than Jim Crow laws or all-white lunch counters, and yet no less deeply rooted.

Focus too much on overtly racist outbursts in the news — of which there seem to have been many lately — he warned, and we risk missing the subtler barriers to equality. "The greatest threats," he said, "do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper." They are, by definition, harder to identify, to denounce or even to publicly discuss.

The key paragraph from Holder's speech, where he leaves much in between the lines:

This is the work that truly matters – because policies that disenfranchise specific groups are more pernicious than hateful rants. Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work, and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise. And a criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently – and punishes them unequally – has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand.

Holder should get a lot of credit for saying this. But he gave only a few of the most obvious examples of the "more hidden, and more troubling" patterns and policies that he's talking about. He cited "zero-tolerance" school discipline guidelines that disproportionately punish black boys. He mentioned criminal sentencing disparities, and "new types of restrictions" on voting that have the effect of disenfranchising more minority, poor and elderly voters in the name of fighting "voter fraud."

Holder did not, however, come out and say what he meant by proposals that "question the desire of a people to work" (much of Paul Ryan's rhetoric on poverty comes to mind). He did not specify that those new types of voter restrictions include ID laws recently enacted in North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. He evoked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts by name (he "has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether"), but he did not call out the consequences of rolling back part of the Voting Rights Act last summer.

He also did not touch on the many even more unseen ways that racial discrimination embeds itself in America today, handicapping the ability of minorities to have equal access to opportunity. If Holder's speech was intended as a conversation starter, here are several more data points in the "subtle" files to consider as well: Minorities are no longer regularly denied the chance to visit, buy or rent housing, but they're still shown fewer units and/or not told about other options beyond their initial housing inquiries.

By virtue of where they live (and how we invest in transportation), low-income minorities in many cities face longer commutes than whites traveling to comparable jobs. In the communities where they live, they're more likely  to be exposed to higher levels of pollution. Low-income minorities are still likely be actively excluded from housing (by landlords who discriminate against Section 8 tenants) and from certain communities (which zone against the construction of affordable and moderate-income housing).

If Holder is opening up a conversation about policies that outwardly appear "race-neutral" but that in reality are not, that's a conversation that leads in many directions – it could lead us to revisit voter laws, zoning codes, sentencing guidelines, school financing systems, transportation investments and public health policy. That's an awful lot to talk about.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.

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