Attorney General Eric Holder's Speech on Race

Saturday, February 21, 2009

ATTORNEY GENERAL Eric H. Holder Jr. took his fair share of lumps this week for calling the United States "a nation of cowards" because "we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race." His provocative choice of words sparked a debate that has distracted from his main point, which is important despite its familiarity: Americans need to engage in an ongoing and honest conversation about race.

Mr. Holder lauded the now-commonplace interactions between and among the races at work but lamented that "there is almost no significant interaction between us" outside the workplace. "Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle," he said, "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." Notice what he didn't say. The nation's chief law enforcement officer and the first African American to hold the post did not prescribe a government solution or a legal remedy. Government has its role in promoting and defending equal rights, of course, and we expect Mr. Holder to restore the civil rights division to its rightful place of pride in his department. But he was asking for Americans to engage in personal conversations about race.

He's hardly the first. President Bill Clinton called for a national conversation on race in 1997, and that didn't get very far. Nearly a year ago, as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, President Obama issued the same call in a speech that addressed head-on the pain, anger and frustration of generations of blacks and whites. Now we have Mr. Holder's contribution, which we hope will spur Americans to put more content into the call for "conversation."

Is the voluntary self-segregation he decries a benign personal choice or is it more sinister? What role is played by school inequality, by inequality in capital accumulation, by popular culture? Is affirmative action a solution, or has it become an obstacle? Do others agree with Mr. Holder's contention that black history "is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment by our society in general and by our educational institutions in particular"?

This is just to get things started.

We'd take issue with Mr. Holder's somewhat dour assessment in at least one sense: his insufficient appreciation of generational change. No, the nation's racial problems have not been solved. The election of the first black president and the selection of the first black attorney general don't prove that racism is a thing of the past. But as the United States becomes more diverse, with no racial group in the majority, it also will become a nation of people less freighted with the baggage of America's horrific past. Remember those young Obama supporters chanting "race doesn't matter" at his victory rallies during the primaries? For them and others in their generation, race doesn't hold the same power.

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