If We Only Had the Nerve
It was a busy week in race. The New York Post was soundly (and appropriately) trounced by progressives and moderates for their running of (and subsequent lack of apology for) a racist political cartoon (join the discussion here), Juan Williams was criticized for what seemed like a race-relevant political attack against Michelle Obama on Fox News (see here for an explanation by Williams and an interesting discussion by and about his other affiliation, NPR), and Attorney General Eric Holder came out with what we think is the best (and, appropriately, bravest) statement about American attitudes toward race in decades:
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.
The remark is brilliant for a number of reasons.
First, like Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech nearly a year ago, the criticism is leveled at all Americans, not just Whites. White people living in the U.S. today are not the root of racism. A system that was built on White supremacy and that perpetuates White privilege ought to be the focus of efforts to achieve more racial equality; it’s about White power, not White people. Holder, like Obama before him, seems to recognize that achieving social justice with respect to race is going to require an examination of the embedded disadvantage of people of color in America that involves an honest examination (and critical analysis) of attitudes and behaviors of people of all races.
Second, it highlights America’s hypocrisy. In South Africa under the apartheid system, the White government did not try to pretend that there was racial equality. America’s apartheid is more entrenched and difficult to combat because it involves a widespread (and effective) denial of systemic advantages and disadvantages. America’s children learn that America is the place where anyone can make it, no matter how poor, as long as hard work and a proper attitude is in place. Barack Obama’s election is symbolic of the truthfulness that resides within that myth, but the fact remains that a White child born in America today has a much better chance of being successful (learning to read, staying out of prison, going to college, having a middle-class lifestyle, etc.) than a child of color. By noting that we are a nation that thinks itself to be essentially something that it is not, Holder is calling attention to America’s dirty little not-so-secret.
Finally, by calling us (including himself) “cowards,” he extends a challenge. The suggestion is that we can have a meaningful and productive discussion about race, but we have just taken the easy road and chosen not to do so. After the speech, Holder told reporters:
If we’re going to ever make progress, we’re going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified.
Here is a guy, quite frankly, that “gets it” when it comes to race relations in America. He is not taking intellectual shortcuts by labeling all Whites as “devils” or arguing that America is essentially fair. Rather, he tacitly acknowledges the complexity of America’s racist history and institutionalized oppression and challenges us all to work together to make it right.
We’ve got your back on this one, Attorney General Holder. We’re going to keep doing our part in this space each week to push in the same direction in the hopes that, eventually, all Americans will be on the same side of the social justice wagon, pushing it down the yellow brick road toward “home.”
Note: Stephen will be providing live, real-time political analysis of President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Twitter. The speech will take place Tuesday, February 23, beginning at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central. Follow him here.