Many View New Attorney General as Chance to Right What They Consider Racial Wrongs

Eric Holder, sworn in Tuesday as attorney general, promised a clean break with the past policies of the Bush administration, saying the Justice Department will be "no place for political favoritism." Video by AP
By Carrie Johnson and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 5, 2009

For decades, the face of the criminal justice system in this country has been black and male: hundreds of thousands locked behind bars, arrested in disproportionate numbers and facing execution at rates far greater than those for the general population.

This week, Eric H. Holder Jr.'s swearing-in as the nation's first black attorney general and its top law enforcement official came weighted with heavy expectation that the system could change.

Known as a prosecutor who was unflinchingly tough on crime, Holder, 58, is also a former civil rights lawyer who has mentored young black men. Many advocates view him as the best chance in decades to right what they consider unchecked racial injustice and insensitivity by federal officials.

Civil rights advocates are already outlining a long list of priorities, including changing laws that lead to disproportionate prison terms for blacks, ending racial profiling and stepping up the policing of discrimination in employment and housing.

"The most important thing is that we have a person who gets it," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. "He understands that the purpose of incarceration is not just punishment and protection but it is also redemption. He understands that people shouldn't be targeted because of what they look like but because of what they do. He understands that enforcing civil rights serves the interest of law enforcement. It's not about what he looks like, it's about what he believes."

Holder will oversee civil rights enforcement, crime prevention and racial justice -- issues with a broad impact and audience -- among many competing priorities in an agency that also plays a central role in fighting terrorism and policing corporate abuse. Fixing decades of perceived injustices is a difficult task at any time but will be especially challenging for Holder now, when government budgets have tightened and scarce money is allocated to national security and defense efforts.

In public statements since his nomination, Holder has emphasized civil rights enforcement, but he has not indicated a desire to plunge headlong into broad changes to the criminal laws. Civil rights enforcement represents a fraction of the Justice Department's wide-ranging responsibilities.

As he settles in during his first days in office, Holder said his personal story will inevitably shape his view of the job. His father served in World War II and was forced to stand in a segregated railroad car, Holder said. His grandmother was not allowed to sit at the counter at Woolworth in New Jersey. His sister-in-law was on the front lines of integrating the University of Alabama.

"As someone who witnessed the civil rights movement and whose family members literally suffered through the evils of segregation, I hope I can bring a unique perspective to the department," he said. "This department has played a historic role in civil rights over the years, and I owe it to those who came before me and to the American people I serve to oversee a vigorous enforcement program that deals with the realities we confront today."

On issues of crime and punishment, Holder brings his background as a hard-nosed, law-and-order prosecutor. As a U.S. attorney in the District, he lobbied for tougher minimum sentences for drug offenders but later changed course on nonviolent criminals, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based group that calls for changing the sentencing system.

In his time away from the office, friends say, Holder worried about young black men caught up in the criminal justice system.

In the 1980s, he and his fellow public corruption prosecutor Reid H. Weingarten began to volunteer at the Oak Hill juvenile detention center. And as the crack epidemic ravaged the District in the mid-1980s, Holder became an early member of the local chapter of Concerned Black Men, a mentoring group founded to provide positive black male role models. From the judge's bench, he sent scores of young black men to prison, but in his chambers, he hosted children involved in the mentoring program.

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