I appreciated Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. broaching the subject of racism during a recent commencement speech at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Except, why go to a historically black university to talk about racism?
Why not Ole Miss, where a Confederate flag recently was draped over a statue of James Meredith, the black student who integrated the school in 1962? Why not San Jose State, where Confederate sympathizers reportedly held down a black student last year and hung a bicycle lock around his neck? Or the University of Michigan, where mounting racial tensions among black and white millennials belie the notion of a post-racial society being at hand?
Of course, Holder would have to tweak his speech.
At Morgan State, he could get away with discounting “outbursts of bigotry” by basketball team owner Donald Sterling, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, N.H., named Robert Copeland.
“If we focus solely on these incidents — on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter — we are likely to miss the more hidden and more troubling reality behind the headlines,” Holder said.
But that take probably wouldn’t fly on a campus rife with racial tension. It is outlandish for a dorm to be defaced with Nazi symbols and the N-word, as happened at Lehigh University. And more attention needs to be paid to that, not less. Students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro went to the library and found racial slurs written on the covers of books, walls and desks in the African American studies section.
What could be a more troubling reality for a parent who has mortgaged the house to send a kid to college?
Such outbursts, whether by a Sterling or a skinhead, amount to a lava flow of bigotry — and we can see how it oozes from a volcano of racism. The eruptions do not hide a troubling racial reality; they reveal what’s been hiding in plain sight.
As honored as Morgan State students may have been to have Holder as a graduation speaker, Morgan State does not have a race problem; the school was created because America does.
My choice for a Holder speech on racism would have been Princeton, where Tal Fortgang, a freshman from Westchester County, touched a nerve earlier this year with an essay knocking the idea of “white privilege.”
“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laserlike at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung,” he wrote in Princeton’s conservative newspaper, the Tory.
Fortgang became an instant sensation — a bulwark against liberalism and all that is wrong with the nation’s colleges in the minds of America’s right wing. You can almost see Fortgang evolving into someone like Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — possibly brilliant, certainly clueless on matters of race.
“Student Takes Down Liberals Over ‘White Privilege’ Debate,” was the headline on a Fox News segment about him.
People like that often end up running powerful institutions, helping to maintain a status quo of inequality that Holder would like to see changed.
Holder noted that black men receive sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on whites convicted of similar crimes. He said that black male students are three times as likely to be suspended from school than white male students. He said that some states enacted voter ID laws that would make it harder for some blacks to vote.
“(D)iscrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute,” Holder said. “And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.”
But change it how? By changing minds. And institutions will follow.
Morgan State students didn’t need Holder to enlighten them about racism. But there are students at plenty of other colleges who could use some schooling.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.