Now, what did he do that for? That was my first thought when our newly-minted attorney general reached for his own rhetorical handful of elephant, as in the previous examples. Not because I thought he was wrong, but because he was saying what was virtually unsayable to a country still basking in, and congratulating itself for, the election of its first African-American president.
He was not only lifting his blindfold, but taking it off entirely while tugging at ours, and telling us, “There’s still an elephant in the room. Take off your blindfold and just look.”
In a blunt assessment of race relations in the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday called the American people “essentially a nation of cowards” in failing to openly discuss the issue of race.
In his first major speech since being confirmed, the nation’s first black attorney general told an overflow crowd celebrating Black History Month at the Justice Department the nation remains “voluntarily socially segregated.”
“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 declared.
Holder urged Americans of all races to use Black History Month as a time to have a forthright national conversation between blacks and whites to discuss aspects of race which are ignored because they are uncomfortable.
Hard words to hear from our first African-American attorney general? Sure. But harsh words?
Granted, they were words few Americans wanted to hear barely a month after witnessing and celebrating a historic inauguration. Holder was raining on a couple of very different parades, and threatening to throw a wet blanket on everyone’s extended good feeling. Some of the reaction was nearly as harsh as some felt Holder’s statement had been. There were a few demands for an apology from Holder, and even President Obama felt the need to retreat from Holder’s comments.
But Holder was right. Despite the election of Barack Obama, Americans are still afraid of an honest discussion about race. And some of the reactions to his comments tend to confirm that.
It’s evident in the desire of many to take the occasion of Obama do declare the country into a “post-civil right” or “post-racial era.” Under their breath, after such declarations, you can almost hear them sigh with relief, “Thank goodness we don’t have to talk about THAT anymore.”
Holder’s first offense may be that he refused to take his confirmation, as some have with Obama’s presidency, as an occasion to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner across the subject of race and declare the matter closed. That burning desire is evident in the comments of those blasting Holder’s remarks.
“Holder doesn’t want an honest dialogue about race. In the Age of [President] Obama, ‘talking enough with each other about race’ means the rest of us shutting up while being subjected to lectures about our insensitivity and insufficient integration on the weekends,” conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote.
Stephan Tawney, writing on the American Pundit blog, said a glimpse at the national political landscape — namely the country’s first black president — suggests otherwise.
“Our attorney general is black, both major parties are led by black men, the president is black,” he wrote. “Last month, the nation officially honored Martin Luther King Jr. as it does every year, and Holder is speaking during Black History Month. And yet we’re apparently a ‘nation of cowards’ on race.”
Ron Christie, a one-time domestic policy adviser to former President George W. Bush, said that for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to raise race issues “was wrong and it was very insulting to the American people.”
The preferred honest dialogue about race apparently now consists of a single statement: “You got Obama. What now?” This was Glenn Beck’s reaction to Joseph Lowrey’s inaugural benediction, which not only failed to declare “Mission Accomplished,” but had the temerity to point out that the race was still not yet run, instead of just taking a victory lap little more than an hour after the oath of office — or 390 years out of the starting gate.
He and Holder were only supposed to celebrate how far we’ve come, and not remind us of how far we’ve yet to go. But the election and swearing in of Barack Obama did not erase the the evidence of how far we’ve yet to go, just based on what was seen during the campaign. It doesn’t erase the racial ugliness that was on full display during the campaign and after the election. It doesn’t erase the disparities that existed the minute before and the minute after Obama took the oath of office.
Plainly put, a black president does not mean the end of racism in America, for the same realties, the same inequalities and disparities — higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration among people of color — persist after more than 100 days into the first black president’s term of office. Nor does the reality of our first African-American president mean that make us post-racial, at least not in the sense that most people who believe in the sudden advent of a post-racial society so enthusiastically use the term.
The candidacy and now the presidency of Barack Obama makes it inevitable that Americans will reflect upon and discuss race. In a sense, it provides us with a great opportunity to do so. But it’s not necessarily easier and discussion than it was before, and the reality of our first president of African descent (whose name ends in a vowel, as well) actually offers cover that our national anxiety about discussing race makes us desire and drives us to seek.
The presidential campaign, and even the past 100 days or so have been rife with examples of just how post-racial we are and just how post-racial we’re not.
Obama won the 2008 election because he was able to mobilize 95 percent of African-Americans, two-thirds of all Latinos and a large proportion of young people under the age of 30. At the same time, what is generally forgotten in the exuberance of this assessment is that the majority of white Americans voted for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket. While “post-racial” may mean less overt racism, the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature – it is an act of willful denial and ignorance.
Hurricane Katrina. The US Supreme Court’s dismantling of Brown vs. Board of Education and the resegregation of American schools. The Clash of Civilizations thesis that promotes the idea of a War against Islam. The backlash facing immigrant workers. A grotesque prison industrial complex. [Moreover] … [w]hile Americans were being robbed blind and primed for yet another bailout of the banks and investment sectors, they were treated to new evidence from Fox News and poverty experts that the great moral threats facing the nation were greedy union workers, black single mothers, Latino gang bangers and illegal immigrants.
Missing from the exuberant claims that Americans are now living in a post-racial society is the historical legacy of a neoconservative revolution, officially launched in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and its ensuing racialist attacks on the welfare “Queens”; Bill Clinton’s cheerful compliance in signing bills that expanded the punishing industries; and George W. Bush’s “willingness to make punishment his preferred response to social problems.” In the last 30 years, we have witnessed the emergence of policies that have amplified the power of the racial state and expanded its mechanisms of punishment and mass incarceration, the consequences of which are deeply racist – even as the state and its legal apparatuses insist on their own race neutrality.
In short, the discourse of the post-racial state ignores how political and economic institutions, with their circuits of repression and disposability and their technologies of punishment, connect and condemn the fate of many impoverished youth of color in the inner cities to persisting structures of racism that “serve to keep [them] in a state of inferiority and oppression.” Not surprisingly, under such circumstances, individual suffering no longer registers a social concern as all notions of injustice are assumed to be the outcome of personal failings or deficits. Signs of the pathologizing of both marginalized youth and the crucial safety nets that have provided them some hope of justice in the past can be found everywhere from the racist screeds coming out of right-wing talk radio to the mainstream media that seems to believe that the culture of black and brown youth is synonymous with the culture of crime. Poverty is now imagined to be a problem of individual character. Racism is now understood as merely an act of individual discrimination (if not discretion), and homelessness is reduced to a choice made by lazy people.
The desire to enter a new “post-racial” age is also, to some degree, a desire for absolution, not for past injustices, but for present inequities and the responsibility to correct them. It’s a desire that crosses partisan lines, as Adam Serwer noted while addressing the latest assault on the voting rights act.
As a presidential candidate trying to rescue his candidacy from the fires of the Jeremiah Wright scandal, Barack Obama delivered a widely praised speech on race. He acknowledged criticism that his candidacy was “based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.” Immediately after Obama won the election, Shelby Steele argued in a column for the Los Angeles Times that whites didn’t “want change from Obama as much as they want documentation of change that has already occurred. They want him in the White House first of all as evidence, certification and recognition.”
But conservatives also use Obama’s election as “documentation” of the end of racism, most recently in an attempt to roll back long-standing protections for minority voters. In a closely watched Supreme Court case, the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — which forces constituencies with a history of discriminating against minority voters to “pre-clear” their election-law changes with the Department of Justice — is at risk. The Department of Justice rejects the changes if they find the changes have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minority voters. The plaintiff, a small municipal utility district in Austin, Texas, argues in its filing that, in part because of Obama’s election, Section 5 presents an “illegitimate” intrusion on states’ rights. In other words, it is unfair to assume that states and localities with a history of discriminating against minority voters will continue to do so, because, after all, we have a black president.
On the one hand, the new “post-racial” age is a an opportunity to declare that nothing more needs to be done about racial disparities — at least not by society at large. On the other it’s an opportunity to declare that what has been done to address racial inequality can now be undone. Both desires stem from either ignoring those disparities, or declaring them solely the “problem” and responsibility of African Americans. (After all, “You got Obama/Oprah/Condoleeza Rice/Colin Powell/fill-in-the-blank-with-any-accomplished-African-American. Now what?”)
It is ultimately a desire to escape the inescapable: history. Not that anything can be done to change the past, or that anyone responsible for past injustices is around to be held accountable today. But Faulkner was right, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past," and Obama even quoted him in his famous speech on race (made once it was clear that race would be an unavoidable issue in the campaign).
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
Race and racial disparity have haunted America and Americans like an unfinished task that — the longer it is neglected — grows so large that it’s impossible to know where to start, and it seems unlikely well ever be finished with it, and finally able to move on. And, truly, we won’t. That is, if we don’t start somewhere and commit to finishing the work.