Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cowardly Nation

AG Eric Holder addressed his new colleagues in the Justice Department during a celebration of Black History month, remarking that we are "essentially a nation of cowards" with respect to things racial. It certainly captured everyone's attention, Holder: US a "Nation of Cowards" on Race Discussions:

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.

* * * *

The attorney general said employees across the country "have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace," but he noted that "certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."

"On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago. This is truly sad," Holder said.

I guess he didn't get the memo that black is in. He obviously needs to check his in-box more often.

My first reaction was that this was quite a change from the office previously held by John Ashcroft, who preferred to cover up statutes, and Alberto Gonzales, who preferred to cover up illegal deeds, rather than address uncomfortable truths, as Holder is doing. Whatever else we may be, we are surely a nation that hates hearing the truth about ourselves.

Of course, many people have interpreted Holder's comments to mean that he believes that white people have a problem with race. See e.g., Holder 'nation of cowards' remarks blasted, praised and Defining 'Nation of Cowards' Down. I guess for these people, "the nation" still only belongs to whites.

However, I don't believe that Holder was talking about those, on either side of the great race divide, who are closed to the conversation, since they would only hear their own words anyway. The monologuers never allow for an opportunity to listen and learn any other point of view. Without that, nothing will change, which is Holder's point. A prime example is the very Hardball show discussing the issue of Holder's speech, with Pat Buchanan & Michael Eric Dyson. Lots of words exchanged, but no discussion there. They each engaged in a strident monologue, yelling past each other. Although, as FN said, you have no doubt where Buchanan stands on issues of race. To the extent that there is a problem with race, for him -- it's all black people's fault. As for Dyson, he spent a lot of time pontificating, without actually saying a whole lot.

Nor was Holder speaking about racists, since many of those individuals have removed the white sheets & are fairly open about expressing their bigoted views (you know, 1st Amendment rights & all). There's really no changing those entrenched views.

Instead, as he said, he was talking about "average Americans" who hold no great animus towards those of another race, but are reluctant to discuss racial issues and concerns out of a fear of being misunderstood (and labeled racist), or even worse, being lectured about the other's point of view (along the lines of we're now post-racial, so give us a break, or the man has kept us down for years, so give us a break).

It's unfortunate that the media focus always has to look for & create a "stir the pot" controversy, even when there isn't really a pot there. As rikyrah of Jack & Jill Politics said, Holder's speech "was thoughtful, smart, historical, honest and contemplative."

See also, Jack & Jill Politics for a transcript of the speech.

I remember when I was younger being taught the old Maxim -- you should never talk about politics or religion (as well as sex or money) in polite company. I don't know that we, as a society, have ever gotten much beyond that. You can also add race to that list, as well as issues dealing with the Middle East, especially Israel and Palestine (which I suppose could fall under the category of politics and/or religion).

I realize that my world is very different that that of most people. I live in a very racially, ethnically & religiously (& let's not forget sexually) diverse environment. My weeks (and week-ends) are integrated on many levels & I do engage in discussions on those issues on a regular basis (and live to tell the tale). I live in Mount Airy after all -- the liberal, hippie, Birkenstock haven of the world & I know my experience does not equate with other parts of the City -- or country. Yet, I also do know that the conversation can happen -- even with some humor on occasion, as Lewis Black notes about Politics & Religion:

Apply that philosophy to race & voila, as Gawker said: "Problem: solved!"


CHARLEE said...

Your essay on Holder's speech concerning this "Nation of Cowards" was the truest, most honest assessment of his comments, more importantly, the meaning of his controversial remarks, that I have yet to read.I wholeheartedly agree, it is in fact the reluctance inside us all to truly listen and make the sometimes painful effort to admit what we know and feel to be - the truth.

JudiPhilly said...

Thanks for the kind words.

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