Why I’d Rather Hear Eric Holder Deliver the State of the Union Tonight

What issue has Obama been addressing inadequately that Holder has confronted more forcefully?

By Brentin Mock Jan 28, 2014

While I’m delighted that President Obama is suddenly going hard in the paint for economic inequality, and will continue to do so tonight, that issue far from entails all of what’s wrong with the state of our union. The wealth gap is just one part of America’s problem. It’s not helpful when Obama attempts to explain away issues like drug sentencing disparities as a class problem when we know, as Jamelle Bouie points out over at The Daily Beast, that it’s really a matter of race. 

But issues like voting rights are insidiously carving up America into colored sections of inequality in ways that can’t be analyzed simply in economic terms. Which is why I would rather hear from Attorney General Eric Holder tonight than Obama, because he seems to be one of the few members of the Obama administration who’s paying attention to race.

We see Holder’s Justice Department going after problems like the school-to-prison pipeline, where there are clear racial disparities in how discipline has been administered. But there are few other arenas where Obama’s Cabinet is looking at how racial inequality defers and dissolves American dreams than in voting, the cornerstone of democracy. 

When the U.S. Supreme Court disabled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act last summer, Holder didn’t back down. He committed to using the Voting Rights Act’s remaining vital organs to prosecute laws in North Carolina and Texas, where Holder says he has evidence that lawmakers conspired to intentionally rob people of color of their civil rights.

Those lawsuits are fights over strict photo voter ID laws, which our Voting Rights Watch team did a ton of reporting on throughout 2012 to show how such laws could, and have, overburdened and intimidated millions of voters of color across the nation. Earlier this month, a judge in Pennsylvania permanently blocked a voter ID law from going into affect because it imposed unnecessary obstacles on voters.

That judge failed to find racial discrimination in the law, despite data presented that upwards of 750,000 voters–most of them African Americans, Latino Americans, and Puerto Ricans in particular–would have been affected had the measure been enforced. Last week, Obama’s Commission on Election Administration released a report on how to improve the voting process that failed to mention race once, despite data that black and Latino voters in Florida had to wait longer in line to vote than any other race in any other place in the country. And Florida wasn’t the only problem case–counties in Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia also did their black and brown voters wrong in 2012.

Obama has been oddly silent on racial discrimination at the polls. In some instances, he may have even weaponized proponents of racially discriminatory voter ID laws, either through his silence, or through episodes like when he was asked for ID to vote and made light of the situation instead of speaking out on its harmful effects.

A federal judge that previously upheld voter ID laws has since recanted that decision as a mistake, as has former president Jimmy Carter, who once endorsed those laws. Both have come to the current view that these laws can be hazardous for voters of color. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell (a Republican), and Hillary Clinton have both denounced voter ID laws wholesale for their racial impacts. A recent study from University of Massachusetts sociologists Erin O’Brien and Keith Gunnar Bentele shows that voter ID laws have proliferated specifically in states with large black and brown populations, and where voters of color turned out in large numbers for Obama the past few elections.

But Obama has yet to stand up for those same voters on this issue. A new amendment has been announced in Congress, to plug in the Voting Rights Act void left by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer, to help restore legal civil rights protections for people of color. While it’s inadequate for replacing what Chief Justice John Roberts took out, Obama has yet to say anything about it.

Perhaps he will tonight. And the fact that DREAMer Cristian Avila, voter engagement coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, will be sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama tonight gives me hope. But the person who has courageously been fighting these racial issues out in the open is Holder, which is why I would prefer that Obama hand the podium over to his Attorney General tonight.