Thoughts on US Attorney General Eric Holder’s ‘Race Speech’

At the time of Mr. Holder’s original speech back in February (02/18/09) I was just a little bogged down with work and I really didn’t read over it or pay it much mind. However, as its been the top post now for one of my favourite Bermudian blogs, Bermuda Fables, I’ve decided to read over his speech and give my thoughts on it, as per Alsys’s questions from it.

For anyone wanting to read Mr. Holder’s original speech it can be found here:

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice African American History Month Program

My Critique

I think my first thoughts after reading over the speech is his focus on blaming personal cowardice for the continued racial divide, see in particular the second paragraph:

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

My response to this is that while, yes, it is important to engage in the ‘big conversation’ and all that jazz, this alone does very little to address the institutionalised inequities that maintain the continued racial divide. Furthermore, I think it failed to address that the main failure of even this ‘talking about race’ should be attributed to the Whites, thus sort of giving them a pass card so to speak.

The continued racial divide in the USA does not originate in years of simply not talking about race, but as a direct result of past state-supported and enforced policies that transferred wealth to Whites and systematically impeded the accumulation of wealth amongst Blacks. Furthermore, White racism facilitated this divide even after formal racist policies were ended, with White flight from the cities (and in truth even this was assisted by racist policies in the form of loans unavailable to Blacks).

This historical policies magnified and solidified over time the institutional inequities between the races, and while the overt racism has been defeated, the covert institutional racism continues these inequities essentially through inertia. White America seems to subscribe to a combination of ignoring very real continuing and past injustices that made and make the racial divide, plus colour-blindness, thinking that because overt racism is gone there is no more racism, and, in this particular case, all of us are to blame as a ‘nation of cowards’ – not the Whites, but the Blacks too.

The racial divide will continue in the USA until the historical wrongs are reveresed, and electing a Black President or even issuing an apology is simply not going to do that. They may indeed help and serve as catalysts, or at least a mild pyschological balm for all involved, but they are certainly not enough. What is needed is a systematic equitable distribution of wealth through huge investments into social profit, that is, education, healthcare and quality housing for all. This, to me, is at least the start towards righting the wrongs of the past, a form or reparations. Without these actions, at a minimum, we may very well go about patting ourselves on the backs saying we defeated the racist oligarchy, but in reality the oligarchy is not defeated, and as such the racial divide continues through inertia.

It is important for us to be able to talk about the race divide, and yes, it will be uncomfortable. But talk is cheap and unless it results in practical action, its little more than hot air and a placebo. Without practical action the wound still festers, indeed it can become all the worse as a result. Talking is part of the cure, just as diagnosing an illness is part of curing it. But having reached a diagnosis, one then has to apply medical actions to correct the problem. You don’t diagnose someone as having a internal bleeding and just pat them on the back and show them the way out and say you’ve fixed the problem.

So, in response to Alsys asking ‘Whats the solution?’ I hope the above serves as a beginning of an answer. And of course what is said above is not just applicable to the USA; in our country resolving the race question is much more pressing. The Big Conversation has to become more than just a ‘diagnosis’ it has to become treatment too. Otherwise it just contributes to the problem by fatigue and confusion.


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