Eric Holder’s Racial Justice Legacy

By Brentin Mock Sep 29, 2014

When President Barack Obama picked Eric Holder to head the United States Department of Justice in 2008, he selected someone committed to the democratic principle of equal protection under the law. You have to go all the way back to the 1960s–the days of Bobby Kennedy and Nicholas Katzenbach–to find justice department chiefs who were as boldly committed to these principles. Having taken the post some 50 years later than Katzenbach and Kennedy, Holder has proceeded in creating a similar justice regime in these regards.

Previous attorneys general–namely those under President George W. Bush–approached civil rights enforcement with contempt. They rarely brought civil rights or voting rights cases, and when they did they were misapplied. One of the highest profile voting rights cases under Bush was one filed on behalf of a white person whom Justice Department attorneys claimed was intimidated from voting by the New Black Panther Party. Bush’s Justice Department was no less nefarious outside the civil and voting rights realm, launching wiretaps of Americans way before it became trendy.

The 2005 appointment of Alberto Gonzales as the first Latino attorney general wasn’t exactly a moment to cry freedom. His tenure remains scarred by the time when the Justice Department emptied out a large number of attorneys who wouldn’t abide by ultra-conservative creeds. Among those fired were U.S. attorneys across the nation who refused to carry out campaigns of war against the invisible threat of voter fraud. Gonzales also injected an unhealthy dose of partisan politics into Justice Department hiring and firing practices and he eventually resigned in disgrace. He was one of four attorneys general rotating in and out under Bush.

When Obama tapped Holder to become the first African-American attorney general, there was finally a reason for people to cry something other than foul. He began as an intern at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while studying at Columbia law school. You’d think then, in 1976, he’d be a natural for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, but the agency rejected him when he applied for a job there. He did, however, get picked up by the criminal division’s newly created public integrity unit to focus on corruption. He went on to serve as the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., under President Bill Clinton then rose to become the first African-American deputy attorney general. Add on his four years as a D.C. Superior Court judge and his legacy spans over a quarter-century as a public servant and leader in the nation’s criminal justice system.

In 2009, as America’s top attorney under Obama, one of Holder’s primary goals was to restore the Justice Department to its former glory, and the civil rights division in particular. Despite the division’s prior rejection of him, Holder believed it was still the "the conscience of the Justice Department," as he told GQ in a 2010 profile. "You can really assess how good a Justice Department is by how effective its Civil Rights Division is."

Let’s assess.

On voting rights, Holder’s cvil rights division, driven at the time by current-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, did what Bush’s Justice Department failed to do: actually apply Voting Rights Act enforcements when and where they were needed. They put an early stop on a restrictive photo voter ID laws in Texas, and put a similar law in South Carolina through enough review and court rigor to tame it into something less onerous for black residents to comply with.

When the U.S. Supreme Court neutralized a Voting Rights Act provision that civil rights advocates relied heavily upon for weeding out discrimination, Holder doubled down on enforcement of the act’s remaining provisions. That has meant taking Texas to court over its voter ID law (again) and fighting a new one that threatens to abridge voters’ rights in North Carolina.

This is owed to the fact that Holder reversed the purging of civil rights lawyers who happened under Bush. As Perez told GQ in 2010, "Virtually every section is bringing back people who were here before. The diaspora have returned."

On racial profiling, Holder has proposed banning the use of race, ethnic, religious and gender identities in federal operations for both national security and standard criminal investigations. He also ordered the department to begin tracking hate crimes committed against Arabs, Hindus, Mormons and Sikhs. The Civil Rights Division’s hate crimes conviction rate is now larger than it’s been in an over a decade.

Holder also fought the school-to-prison pipeline. He asked schools to dismantle the "zero tolerance" discipline policies that, for decades, have led to black and Latino students getting suspended and expelled at rates far higher than their white peers.

Holder’s work beyond the civil rights division has been has had just as much impact. He’s made plenty of headlines lately for his reforms to the federal criminal justice system, namely softening sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders. His "Smart on Crime" initiative has helped law enforcement officials find other ways of reducing and correcting criminal activity beyond just locking people up. His acknowledgement that the mass incarceration crisis among the black community has taken a tremendous toll on black communities was the first of its kind from the highest law enforcement authority ever.

"The ‘Smart on Crime’ initiatives he announced last year are a quintessential example of Attorney General Holder’s vision and boldness," says NAACP LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill.

The results: This year, the federal prison rate dropped for the first time since 1982. Holder has called for restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, and he has built bipartisan support for that and his other reforms. You would be hard-pressed to name another individual in federal government who’s pulled bipartisan support together on anything, let alone something as massive in impact as criminal justice.

Still not done, Holder called last week for federal prosecutors to stop enhancing sentences for defendants who reject plea deals. He also announced this week that the Justice Department would enter a lawsuit, siding with New York’s public defender program, which is arguing that their excessive caseloads are preventing them from providing low-income defendants with adequate counsel. Helping the indigenous in court has been an issue dear to Holder’s heart, as seen in the documentary "Gideon’s Army." The inability to secure a good lawyer has been a huge contributor to the racial disparities seen in court convictions and sentencing. Holder launched the "Access to Justice Initiative" in 2010, which expanded research and funding support to improve the delivery of indigent defense services.

The outgoing attorney general has made it no secret that he’s a fan of the TV shows "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad." Those stories, along with the thousands of cases he’s helped adjudicate as an attorney and judge, have no doubt informed his recent policy reform proposals. He’s also received the support of President Obama, a constitutional lawyer, and someone who Holder says shares his worldview on civil rights and criminal justice.

But for all that, conservatives have made him one of their chief adversaries, attacking Holder from the very beginning of his tenure. Some of the attacks appear to fault him for making the Justice Department do the enforcements it failed to do under previous administrations.

"He was a menace to the rule of law," wrote J. Christian Adams, who was an attorney under Bush’s lackluster Justice Department. He helped bring the aforementioned Voting Rights Act case against the New Black Panther Party (which failed) and has been salty about it ever since.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.) has also been a thorn in Holder’s side, trying desperately for years to behead Holder for the "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling scandal. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing by the department’s inspector general (for the operation that began under Bush) Issa has continued to try to hang Holder for it. He even led a House Republican vote to hold Holder in contempt — the first such instance for any U.S. attorney general, ever — over the drama.

In response to Holder’s resignation, Issa made his thirst apparent by calling him "the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history."

Said Issa, "By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder’s legacy has eroded more confidence in our legal system than any attorney general before him." This means Issa believes Holder is worse than Bush’s AGs, who resigned one after another for scandal after scandal, including those that led to the partisan-based firing and forcing out of dozens of Justice attorneys.

Civil rights stalwarts have praised Holder’s service. "There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights and voting rights than Attorney General Holder," said Myrlie Evers Williams, the widow of voting rights martyr Medgar Evers.

"Eric Holder has vigilantly defended an ideal Bobby strongly believed, that the Justice Department must deliver justice for all Americans," said Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, who led the Justice Department’s defense of civil rights in the early 1960s. He was assassinated in 1968.

In Holder’s resignation speech on September 25, he spoke of watching Kennedy as a young boy "prove during the Civil Rights Movement how the department can–and must–always be a force for that which is right."

A few months ago, Holder spoke in Texas at the dedication of the new Lyndon B. Johnson library when he looked up and saw a picture of his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone. She was one of the two black students prepared to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963 under court orders as Governor George Wallace literally stood in their way.

In that dramatic standoff, Wallace positioned himself behind a lectern in the University’s Foster Auditorium, flanked by state troopers and a gang of his segregationist acolytes. Kennedy’s Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach stepped to Wallace and told him to kill the drama. Wallace delivered a speech that day that sounded a lot like many of the conservatives today who’ve been aiming at shredding civil rights laws under the theme of states rights.

Katzenbach was unbothered. "Governor, I am not interested in a show,” said the deputy attorney general. "I am interested in the orders of these courts being enforced. … Those students will remain on this campus. They will register today. They will go to school tomorrow.”

The rest is American history.

What Holder has achieved, among many things, is a restoration of those sentinel qualities, from the days of Kennedy and Katzenbach.

One of his last, big stands was in Ferguson, where he helped quell rising tensions between community residents and police over the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown. He came back from Ferguson sharing with his close friends and family members his hopes to continue these efforts to restore trust between cops and communities of color. It appears he feels he can do that more effectively now, without being constrained by the politics and chaos of Washington.

Reflecting on the struggle to register his sister-in-law in college in Alabama, Holder told The Daily Beast, "When you consider what she had to deal with, and what our ancestors had to deal with in the 18th and 19th centuries… some of the opposition against us is difficult, but if you keep a historical perspective, all of this stuff is manageable."