Attorney General Eric Holder has talked often and publicly, particularly of late, about his own story as a black man in America. He's talked about his father, a World War II veteran who faced discrimination when he returned home, and about his teenage son, who still lives with the "sad reality" that black boys face heightened suspicion many places they go.
Like the president who appointed him, Holder has drawn on these personal details to convey the unfinished work of civil rights in the U.S. And that approach will be a big part of his legacy: Holder wasn't just the first black attorney general, he was an attorney general who used his bullhorn to talk about race — and its ongoing implications for voting rights, criminal justice and police relations — in a way that others cannot.
President Obama's nominee to replace Holder, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has an equally compelling story that suggests a deep personal commitment to civil rights. But she almost never talks about it.
Obama introduced her on Saturday at the White House as someone “who doesn’t look to make headlines," who's "not about splash," but substance. As the New York Times wrote, Lynch is "mild, unflappable, and somewhat unknowable," a scarce combination in a city "full of larger-than-life characters who conduct their careers like political campaigns."
Lynch demurs from the podium at press conferences. She appears to have shared little about her personal life even with colleagues.
And her record as a prosecutor is such that she doesn't need to say much anyway about where she stands on civil rights: One of her top achievements in New York was leading the prosecution of five white police officers accused of committing ghastly brutality against a Haitian immigrant.
It is hard to imagine Lynch, who would be the first black woman to serve as attorney general, making a history lesson of her own life quite like Holder has, or even talking about racial injustice as Obama has done. During her introduction, Obama was the one who gave a bit of her backstory, as Lynch looked on.
She was born in Greensboro, N.C., "the year before black students there sat down at a whites-only lunch counter," Obama said, "helping to spark a movement that would change the course of this country." She's the daughter of a librarian and a Baptist minister. Obama again:
Loretta rode on her father’s shoulders to his church, where students would meet to organize anti-segregation boycotts. She was inspired by stories about her grandfather, a share cropper in the 1930s, who helped folks in his community who got in trouble with the law and had no recourse under the Jim Crow system.
These experiences taught Lynch about "the power the law had over your life," she said once, spurring her to become a lawyer herself.
In an earlier speech, she has also recounted the story of her great-great-grandfather, a freed man who re-entered slavery to marry the woman who became her great-great-grandmother. And she has described her own mother's history, picking cotton in high school so that her daughter would not have to. Of herself, Lynch said in a brief interview once, after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1984, she was often mistaken as a court reporter.
Her nomination suggests that the DOJ will continue its renewed focus under Holder on civil rights, both because of her record as a prosecutor and her personal experiences. But we may not hear her talk about them in quite the same way.