As has been much publicized, on Wednesday, February 18, 2009, newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder made the following comment:
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.
. . . we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.
And, while some, including (curiously) the Family Research Council, have marginally come to Attorney General Holder's defense, these comments are deserving of the scrutiny they have received. Mr. Holder's comments were offensive and way off the mark.
In their most benign context, Holder's comments reveal a naivete about the very American society he wishes to chastise into change. At their most cynical level, Holder's comments wrongfully cloak a proud American history of self-challenge to its racially divisive beginnings, of commitment to national reconciliation and healing and of a broader appeal to the notion of patriotism which unites all Americans - irrespective of the color of our skin.
Such cynicism is particularly troublesome, when so much has been given by so many to ensure that the American way of life and the promise of opportunity are realized by all - irrespective of the color of their skin.
Nearly one hundred fifty years ago, my great-great-great grandfather, Judge George Woodruff engaged a West Point classmate of his son in a debate over the moral depravity of slavery. While he was unable to persuade young Felix Robertson, Judge Woodruff's belief in a better America, free of racial hatred and slavery, forged a passion for justice and equality that would be passed on to his sons, George, William and Montgomery and his nephew, Frank. All four of these young men took these beliefs with them in service of the Union cause.
Judge Woodruff, first, lost his son, George, at Gettysburg and, then, lost his son, William, at Petersburg. And, then, he lost his nephew, Frank, in New Orleans. The Woodruffs all engaged the issue of race, Mr. Holder. They were not cowards - they were patriots.
The Woodruff experience is not unique. For the last 150 years, generation after generation of Americans, family after family, black and white, have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to the American ideals of freedom and racial equality. These Americans were not cowards, Mr. Holder - they were patriots.
This is not to say that racism has been eliminated from the American experience. But, that's not the thrust of Holder's comments. Holder called Americans cowards because, in his estimation, we don't engage the issue of race.
Engage the issue of race to what end, Mr. Holder? So that we can regurgitate the scourge of slavery one more time? So that we can all understand America's racist past? So that we can continue to wallow in a collective guilt which has shaped decades of ill-conceived public policy and which has grown to paralyze white and black Americans alike?
If nothing else, Mr. Holder, President Obama's election constitutes a landmark turning of the page - a new day where retreat into the old racial politics of the past is neither warranted, nor productive. Yet, that's just what you seem to urge, Mr. Holder.
The fact that Americans fight for a common cause, but still maintain independent cultural identities, Mr. Holder, is not a sign that the melting pot has cooled. It is a sign that each culture which comprises America appreciates that which binds us all - the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and that, now, each has the capacity, without oppression or interference, to celebrate such principles in their own distinctive way, ways which add to America and which make our melting pot more colorful and vibrant, not less. This is an American success story, Mr. Holder, not an American failure.
Playing the 'race-card' as Attorney General of the United States, Mr. Holder, is cowardice. Lecturing millions of Americans, who just elected an African-American president and have celebrated such event like no other inauguration in modern history, about engaging the issue of race is foolish.
Let me suggest a more productive path. Mr. Holder, if you really want to engage the issue of race in a way that makes a dramatic change for America and for the relationships between all Americans, then I would urge you to advance the cause of racially-neutral public policy. Step forward, Mr. Holder, and urge the eradication of racial preferences and quotas in public employment - that would be courageous, Mr. Holder, and unlike your recent speech, hardly cowardice, nor foolish.