“Nation of Cowards” When it Comes to Racism

In a speech given in honor of Black History Month at the Justice Department yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to addressing “racial matters”  (h/t HarryWaisbren via Twitter).  As readers here will no doubt recall, Holder is the first African American Attorney General (image of from here).

Here’s the longer quote from Holder’s speech, courtesy of Amanda Terkel at ThinkProgress:

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, 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 issue in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial. […]

And we, in this room, bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example, the Department of Justice — this Department of Justice — as long as I’m here, must and will leave the nation to the new birth of freedom so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty, this is our solemn responsibility (Watch Holder’s speech here).

I tend to agree with Holder and find it both refreshing and somewhat startling to hear someone in power speak the truth.   Not surprisingly, neo-con Jonah Goldberg has his panties in a twist about Holder’s remarks, but then, I wouldn’t expect anything else from the guy who wrote Liberal Fascism.

I’d add one thing to Holder’s assessment.   In my view, it’s whites who are the cowards when it comes to talking about racial matters.   As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, most of the discussion about “race” in schools gets stashed in classes called “African American History.”    For the most part, whites don’t sign up to take those classes because they don’t see them as relevant for their own lives or their understanding of this country.   And, that’s just the 25% or so of the U.S. population that makes it to college.   There’s still no K-12 curriculum that addresses the history of racism in this country; the Amistad Commission set up to address this educational void here in New York State is remains stalled after four years. The cumulative effect of these sorts of choices, this national cowardice – refusing to engage in conversation about racism, no educational initiative to teach school children about racism, and college-attending whites’ lack of interest in African American history – is willful ignorance.   Based on my long history of knowing white people personally, that by remaining ignorant about racism, many whites are hoping that that absolves them of any culpability for doing anything about it.    Like I said, that’s just a guess, I don’t have any research to back that up.

I say it’s way past time for us, as a nation, to have a little courage and start having these conversations.    What do you say?


  1. Seattle in Texas

    I thought it was a powerful speech–right on target. I’ve probably shared more than enough of my views, whether people agree or not. For about 1/2 an hour as I was reading, out of the corner of my eye and ear where children jumping on our trampoline. This happens regularly and I take it for granted. But in thinking about racial interaction, there were 5 children between the ages of 6 to 10 years old. One boy whose black, one girl whose Latina, one boy who has a black and white parent, one girl who has a black and white parent, and one white boy. They are our future, though, just as are those children who play in segregated spaces. And I wanted to point out while I know many antiracist folks, down here in Texas, there is one in particular–a black man who has been working with an young adult white supremacist. This young white adult grew up in a highly racist family, in the environment from birth. The conversations I heard were harsh as they took place in my dwelling for a period of time on several occasions. But what was present, was an environment where this young white man could ask questions in his own language and words within his white supremacist frame–the only one he really knew and could see out of. Conversations were real and frank, both in questions and responses given. He still keeps in touch with the white young man and they are friends. It’s complicated, but important antiracist work. But this black man has confronted local white supremacist and asked them to look him in his eye and tell him why they hate him and not once have they looked him back in his eye. Nor did they have a response.

    My point to the above, is that what I have found is that higher up I go in terms of discussing antiracist intellectual dialogue with folks, the more intolerant and dogmatic they can become. There is a tendency to be quick to cut people off if they disagree, have misperceptions, quick to judge, rather than try to see other perspectives and ask questions on “why” or “how” and have worthwhile conversations. I know antiracist folks who do excellent work who work from fundamentally different standpoints, but who could not be in the same room together. Then some are quick to charge those working towards the same exact goals and being antiracist, as being racist…which only serves to stiffen the barriers.

    What I’ve noticed though, down at the lower ranks and bottom, that is really where the most genuine dialogue occurs–and really has all my life. We don’t have to put up the pretentious fronts, as the folks up higher do and in the formal settings. And we don’t shut people out–at least my private and personal circles. We agree to disagree. We don’t claim to be “the one” antiracist person regardless of color, or “the only one right”, etc. It’s “we” and not “me”….

    Outside of those I interact with on a personal level, I don’t know how to stimulate dialogue–there are too many social barriers, as well as the cultural capital that must not be fiddled with. I feel more comfortable talking racism in public for sure–for me, it’s about being in spaces where there barriers are pretty much not there. The university setting for me, is really similar to being in a church setting. Pretentious. But part of my discomfort in discussing racism with many in higher education is because I’ve majored in three different areas during my undergraduate studies–two of which, consider each their nemesis, but of which both, have so much to offer and so much potential. Then, the two areas that hate each other, have absolutely no regard for philosophy–none (with the exception of a few scholars here and there in both–but they are often the outcasts in their departments). Let me not say more on this….

    I guess my thoughts are that biases, pride, prejudices, and many other factors, keep people from having discussions at all levels. And it’s really sad. But, the most real discussions, I think, really come from the bottom and always have–and some if not most of our greatest writers are those, who came from the bottom. My thoughts.

  2. Deloris Phillips

    Why is the truth, more than not, taken as an insult?!? Cowards and bullies are those who run from the truth and live in the perfect world of denial. The sad reality, there is no such world of “perfect”. A problem has to faced head on. We cannot run or reject our problems, for they will only get bigger and bigger. Permanent reslotuions are the answers to all problems and this can only be attained by honest communication.

    Ms. Deloris Phillips

  3. Ashley

    I agreed with Holder’s statements. Most people in this nation do no want to discuss the gross racial disparities in the criminal justice system, education, employment, etc. We are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race. It is sad to watch the lives of so many be destroyed by the residue and filth of institutional racism. Sometimes I wonder if my culture will make it through.

  4. David Owen

    Charles Blow of the NY Times brings empirical research on implicit bias to the discussion of Holder’s comments in his column on Feb. 20. He cites Project Implicit’s research that most whites make an implicit and automatic association between whites and good, and blacks and bad.

    What Mr. Blow’s piece fails to do, however, is to provide an account of why we have this bias. Mr. Blow does ask the (crucial) question “why do so many people have this anti-black bias?” And Professor Nosek (of Project Implicit) responds that our brains just have this automatic response. But this answer doesn’t really explain the bias–it just re-describes the phenomenon being studied by Project Implicit. We already know that our brains respond this way (his research shows this); your question is “why?”

    The explanation of this phenomenon is found in the interrelationship between how the individual self is created and how the norms, practices, and institutions of society are created. Social theorists since at least G.H. Mead (including the work of Joe Feagin) have argued that the self, with its worldview, attitudes, beliefs, biases, etc., and the social structures in which we live are created and maintained in the very same processes of social interaction. Thus, when we are socialized into a social structure that carries with it a legacy of past racial oppression, I internalize that racial oppression. In other words, I become infected by the racism that is already a part of my social context.

    This social theory, I suggest, explains the results of Project Implicit’s work. It also should cause us to think more about how our children internalize these structures of racial oppression at very young ages (as you mention in your piece).

  5. GDAWG

    “….Thus, when we are socialized into a social structure that carries with it a legacy of past racial oppression, I internalize that racial oppression. In other words, I become infected by the racism that is already a part of my social context……”
    David Owen u r the man! What clarity in the explanation of the analysis of our socialization in society. But I take the more basic construct in that most humans tend to gravitate to those that ‘are like them’ for survival’s sake. It’s probably sub-conscious and primal. Even I notice the tendency in myself. Whether it ‘s defensive mechanism for me in light of our history of oppression here in the USA, or the primal instinct I speak of, is too complicated to speak to in this forum. But it is a convenient escape mechanism.

  6. GDAWG

    Huh? As I have thought about your theory of socialization of racial oppression more today David, it rang out to me how does what you and I noted above, become pathological? That is, how does the need to ‘self segregate’ for survival sake, then translate into the need to disadvantage a group? One would think that ‘the whole’ of a social structure would be advantaged if all parties involved worked, willingly, for the same goals, whatever they maybe. particularly if we as humans, are truly the moral vessels we pretend, or proclaim, to be. But I’m clear that what we humans are capable of is what I would describe as ” moral relativism”. That is, the ability to massage or shape one’s morality to fit a particular circumstance, with survival being the ultimate goal, i.e., warfare of various sorts.
    What the record shows in human history on any continent is that what we humans have done from time in memorial, is to socialized oppression of a particular group(s) of various sorts, to advantaged one group over another. This then is pathological to the victims of such actions, and, perhaps, ‘darwinian’ to the victors.

  7. Joe

    It is whites who do not have the courage or guts to discuss white racism. People of color do have that courage, every dayl Here is really talking about whites. Yet, Holder’s comment is very tame, and look at the EXTREME white protests. Shows just how the “post-racial”notion is just one more white coverup of the white racism deep in this society. whites are super sensitive on these issues, and you do not need Freud to know why.

  8. David Owen

    GDWAG, you may be right about there being an evolutionary basis for our inclination to self-segregate. I wonder what the empirical evidence is for this, and how strong that evidence is. In any case, I think that socialization processes overwhelm and amplify any evolutionary inclinations we have.

    Your second comment goes directly to the issue–the fact that the system of racial oppression serves the interests of one group (whites) at the expense of all other groups (people of color). So a simply evolutionary drive to self-segregate would not be enough to explain this hierarchical relation. What needs to be accounted for is why did morphology (especially skin color) become a central criterion of discrimination? The answer is that it took on a particular meaning (that skin color is supposed to tell us something about character and other hidden abilities and talents) BECAUSE is served the interests of those with economic power (who happened to be white). So you are correct to focus on the pathology of the racializing process.

  9. GDAWG

    D avid let me note that it was Father Bartholome de la Cas who laid the ground work for enslavement of Africans in the west. He wrote to his spanish masters, and the Pope, that as opposed to the Indians, “Africans were constitutionally more fit….” Obviously, is has been said that the Indians, at the time, revered him.
    Moreover, and further along in history, in a book entitled “The History of Rice’ because European slavers required the knowledge of west African rice growers (as slaves) to help sustain the initial colony on the Atlantic coast. Because the Africans were institutionally marginalized as chattel property with no rights any man white were bound to respect, there needed to be a easy surrogate to continue the cheap labor (slavery) and their marginalization. The easy surrogate was skin color and their non-european origin. With the end of slavery, again, there was a need to continue the Black peoples marginalization for, basically, cheap labor, i.e., Jim Crow laws. All of which was institutionalized by the Federal govt, “not individual whites”, who, themselves, were just as exploited, but they had an easy escape clause, their white skins. So, in essence, commerce and ‘otherness’ served the European American elite quite well in getting and keeping their wealth at the expense of enslaved Africans, for the most part.

  10. Stephen Steinberg

    The last we need is more Yakety-Yak on Race, as Adolph Reed called the National Conversation on Race in a column in The Progressive (December 1997).

    But what we need from the Attorney
    General of the United States is action, and Eric Holder could have used the occasion of Black History Month to recommit himself to vigorous enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which proscribes employment discrimination. Or the 1968 Civil Rights Act against housing discrimination. Or to recommit the Obama Administration to renewing affirmative action policy that has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court, packed with Republican appointees. Or to dealing with the inexcusable disparities in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine. Or to prosecute racial profiling, including the targeting of minority youth by police for drug violations. This is what we need to hear from the Attorney General of the First Black President, not a stream of banalities about the need to talk across the racial divide.

    Now that would take some spine!

  11. John Thompson

    The reason people don´t want to discuss race is because it will always break down into a shit fight.
    Imagine the following.

    I don´t believe all races are equal.

    Even though I could produce 10 pages of facts to support my claim, I would be demonized. I actually don´t have to say any more than the above to provoke a stream of abuse.
    Now you know why I don´t bother discussing race.
    What this retard wants us to do is all agree that race doesn´t matter, when it clearly does.
    Sorry, that´s the truth. Deal with it.


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