I wouldn't suppose anyone likes to be called a coward, even if you are one. Yet Attorney General Eric Holder said we were a "nation of cowards," when it comes to discussing matters of race. I understand Holder's purpose was to chastise and challenge people of all races about our national unwillingness to have a dialogue about what is really going on in our society, but only a month after we elected our first African-American president with an unprecedented outpouring of good will, and only two weeks since Holder was sworn in as our first black Attorney General, was "cowards" the wisest terminology to describe American society? Where I come from, those are fighting words. I recall another first, Andrew Young, who became Secretary to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter, and in debate with the British delegation said the English were intimately familiar with racism since "they pretty much invented it." What he said may have been factually correct, but his job description was supposedly to be a diplomat.
Perhaps I've lived in the South so long that I've developed a touch of redneck, but Holder's comments unexpectedly made my blood rise. It was akin to being a kid on the playground being pushed to the ground by the class bully. You can either sit there and put your cowardice on display, or charge the bully and try to inflict as much physical pain as possible while simultaneously praying that someone is there to break it up. There are, in fact, readers of this post that if you called "cowards" to their face, your next act would be gathering your teeth from the floor. I'm a pacifist who understands the intention, but Holder's unfortunate choice of words served to inflame many of the people who were already on his side and feeling uplifted over our historical national achievement. The really unfortunate part of this episode is that Holder is right about the need for racial dialogue, but his message was lost in the rancor of his clumsy and intentional provocation.
Holder succeeded in pretty much offending everyone, including, I imagine, President Obama. The President has so far been very careful to be non-confrontational and inclusive in his speeches, I wonder if Holder ran that little doozy past him first? In a joint appearance shortly after the inauguration, when Joe Biden joked about Chief Justice John "No Notes" Roberts mangling the Oath of Office, Barack grabbed his elbow and gave him a glance like a parent would a feckless child. I hardly believe the President would approve of his new Attorney General, in one of his first public speeches, making well-intentioned but ultimately divisive remarks. A racial discussion would be a good thing, but just right now, it's a few notches down in urgency than the economy, health care, and fending off an impending Depression. First, clean up the Justice Department, then we'll talk.
In fact, had Holder taken the long view, he might have seen what I have in recent years. I am among the remaining members of a generation who never sat in a classroom with a black student until I reached college. Attempting inter-racial friendships took some outreach and understanding on all parties, but I was never afraid to discuss race with anyone. Early on, I noticed a curious thing about both whites and blacks from a segregated society attempting to talk to one another for the first times. Whites would adapt some imagined hip-patois or jive lingo trying to relate to blacks, while blacks would become stricter and more pronounced in speech with white people than they were with each another. I managed to find a way to be constant in my behavior with everyone while resisting the temptation to perform multi-layered handshakes. An entire generation of people are still awkward around each other simply because of their forced separation in childhood. Such is not the case with young people like my step-son, Cameron, who know not the curse of segregation.
I marvelled at the seamlessness of his friendships with people of all races. Cameron didn't have "black" friends, or "Asian" friends, they were all just his friends. Holder's "nation of cowards" is of a certain generation, a remnant from the past when races were separated by law, along with the casualties of the "Reagan Revolution" who were either enriched or institutionally impoverished by "trickle-down" economics. Like 1968, we are a nation divided by young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Christians and everybody else. But the warriors of the Civil Rights movement, as well as their opponents, are rapidly aging now, soon to be replaced by this post-racial society we speak of, but have yet to experience in our time. Since Eric Holder was being blunt to make a point, let me be blunt as well. General Holder, before you come out swinging wildly and calling people of good will "cowards," you may wish to first display some personal courage yourself. The conflagration at Waco and the storm-trooper mission to retrieve Elian Gonzales are not sterling references on your resume. I already know you will be a wiser Attorney General than John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales by default, but maybe you should shut up until you have at least passed the Janet Reno threshold.