Holder Was Right
Eric Holder couldn’t have wanted to be involved in a fairly major controversy within a month of his appointment as Attorney General. If he could, he would probably modify his remarks at an African American History Month event, where he said that
“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. 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. …As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad.”
Drudge highlighted the speech, so it got a lot of publicity and came in from criticism from the usual suspects. Jonah Goldberg wrote a column condemning the “nation of cowards” line (though he later revised his criticism after reading the entire text). The conservative blogosphere exploded. Even Maureen Dowd wrote a column criticizing Holder, saying that we “don’t need sermons from liberal virtuecrats, any more than from conservative virtuecrats.”
It’s too bad Holder is coming in for all this criticism, because he happens to be absolutely correct. Racial attitudes in the United States are as bad (or worse) as Holder paints them. Regarding race, America is a nation of cowards, and there are many, many unresolved racial issues in this nation. Holder shouldn’t be condemned—he should be praised for his honest and clear-sighted view of our racial politics.
Is America a racial nation of cowards? Indisputably, yes. The last great racial discussion revolved around the question of whether it was racist for the New York Post to publish a cartoon showing a chimp being shot. Admittedly, a minor controversy (it’ll be forgotten in a month), but it is a good example of America’s racial dialogue.
The last major racial discussion before Chimpgate (the question of whether Obama’s election signaled the advent of a post racial America) started with uncharacteristic intelligence. But that couldn’t last—by the end of the election, Obama supporters were accusing the Republican party in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, of being racist, while conservatives threw the reverse racism tag around every bit as wildly and unfairly as their liberal counterparts.
The last major racial debate before Obama? Don Imus. Before that? Trent Lott.
And neither of this gaffes were the stuff of intelligent racial dialogue—in both cases, Americans were forced to assume outrage at slips of the tongue, if a cruel and insensitive slip in Imus’ case. Holder was generous to call Americans “cowards” when it comes to race—I think “idiots” might work better.
Lost in the furors over Imus and the Post and Lott is the obvious but little spoken truth that America is de facto segregated, and that in practice, racial interaction has changed little in the past fifty years. (Racial attitudes, on the other hand, have changed considerably).
Blacks and whites, for the most apart, live entirely segregated lives. In most places, it is possible tell exactly where the white part of town ends and the black section begins. Blacks and whites listen to different music, speak differently, and rarely intermarry.
In addition, they usually have separate jobs. Blacks tend to hold lower income blue-collar jobs, while whites have jobs across the economic spectrum, but concentrated in middle and upper middle class positions.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that America’s race relations follow a separate but equal policy. African-Americans are free to marry anyone they want, go anywhere they want to, vote, and participate fully in American culture. But they don’t—instead, black culture exists as a subculture sharply segregated from the American mainstream.
The solution to this problem? Holder vaguely mentioned impromptu interracial discussions through artificial opportunities to engage one another, a solution so shallow and ineffective that I can’t believe that even Holder really thinks it would work. (Perhaps he is afraid to suggest anything more controversial—perhaps he can be included in the “nation of cowards”) Others think that that black race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are to blame for America’s voluntary segregation, but it seems unlikely that many people, black or white, take their social cues from Al Sharpton.
The real reason for this phenomenon, I think, is that America has a long history of segregation, and that history cannot be eradicated in one generation, or even many generations. It will be a long time before blacks and whites fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream, if they do, and the sad truth is that there is little either government or societal leaders can do to expedite King’s vision.