Another Take on the Holder Situation

By Guest Columnist Feb 23, 2009

by Andrew Grant-Thomas A lot has already been written about Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent race speech. The media coverage has invariably led with his suggestion that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” And so we have a major hullabaloo about the wisdom and accuracy of Mr. Holder’s “cowards” reference, and almost nothing on the weighty remainder of the speech, which ran some 2,400 words. Mr. Holder gets a lot of particulars right. Our race talk tends to be neither frank nor constructive. We have yet to seriously engage with our racial past or with its profound implications for present and future conditions and dynamics. The sequestration of an often thinly-articulated “black history” in the shortest month of the year is troubling both in principle and practice. Most of our major institutions – schools, neighborhoods, and places of worship, and our social circles in general – remain largely segregated, cocooned spaces. Most importantly, “We still speak too often of ‘them’ and not ‘us,’” ignoring the ways in which, as a nation and world, we ultimately rise or fall together. Those aren’t slim pickin’s, and there’s still more to the attorney general’s thinking that warrants our consideration. The major problem with Mr. Holder’s remarks, in my view, was his complete inattention to the programmatic, policy-oriented, institutional changes we’ll need to achieve the kind of progressive racial vision to which he obviously aspires. His characterization of America as “voluntarily” socially segregated is a case in point. To be sure, biases and aversions, both blatant and hidden, still loom large in our racial culture and for sure there’s an important element of choice to how we compose our social networks. But even a casual analysis of racial interaction that doesn’t note how things like exclusionary zoning, racial steering in housing, school funding inequities, and school tracking practices shape our social contexts and constrain our choices misses the boat. This links to my broader concern about Mr. Holder’s speech. Those who managed to read the whole piece could be forgiven for getting to the end and concluding that we’re just one great, sustained national conversation away from racial nirvana. We’re not. Dialogue is important, perhaps even indispensable, to that end. However, what’s most needed are hardcore changes in practice and policy that lead to and emerge from institutional transformation: changing where federally subsidized housing is sited; making school funding equitable, rather than aiming for a grossly inadequate “equality”; meaningful criminal justice reform; a responsive mindfulness to the racialized distributions of burdens and benefits that typically attach to “universal” measures like the current stimulus package. Again, a constructive national dialogue may be a necessary precursor or complement to these kinds of changes, but it cannot stand alone. Thankfully, the attorney general is right: institutionally speaking, the America of today isn’t the America of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Unfortunately, nor is it the America it can yet become. Andrew Grant-Thomas is the Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute.