Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. today called on the nation to “examine its racial soul,” during a speech commemorating Black History Month.
Holder, the first African American to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcer, offered a drab picture of American progress in race relations, as he spoke before a standing-room crowd in the Justice Department’s Great Hall.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder said.
He continued, “Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”
His speech recalled the one given by President Barack Obama, last March, when he described "a racial stalemate" of black anger and white resentments that has distracted the country from overcoming issues that squeeze the middle class and exacerbate the divide. Holder also spoke of the enduring racial divide, and he suggested ways of bridging it.
“As a nation we should use Black History month as a means to deal with this continuing problem,” Holder said. “By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character based, acceptance can actually be realized.”
Holder said too often debates over race-related issues are too simplistic, and “left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own, narrow self interest.”
“There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited,” Holder said.
But such a debate must start with the premise that African-American history is American history, not “divorced from the whole,” Holder said.
Holder said the American education system must adapt in ways that more clearly impart the roles blacks have played in law, culture, science, athletics, industry and other fields -- knowledge that is critical to gaining “an understanding of the American experiment,” Holder said.
“Black history is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment by our society in general and by our educational institutions in particular,” Holder said.
Holder, a former federal prosecutor, D.C. judge, and U.S. attorney, spoke of his own success as a measure of those who came before him.
“I stood, and stand, on the shoulders of many other black Americans. Admittedly, the identities of some of these people, through the passage of time, have become lost to us -- the men, and women, who labored long in fields, who were later legally and systemically discriminated against, who were lynched by the hundreds in the century just past and those others who have been too long denied the fruits of our great American culture,” Holder said.