race in America, eric holder, discussion on race
Evan Vucci/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder

Are Americans Having a Conversation About Race?

February 19, 2009 05:30 PM
by Christopher Coats
Attorney General Eric Holder’s appeal for the country to open frank discussions on race has spurred powerful reactions and raised the question of whether a conversation is already taking place.

Are We Talking?

In a speech to the Department of Justice celebrating Black History Month, Holder challenged the country to go beyond surface discussions of race and beyond the “race-protected cocoons” that he suggested most people retreat into when not directly faced with a member of another race.

“Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated,” Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general told the crowd.

While much of the coverage of the speech has focused on Holder’s more controversial remarks, including his use of the word “cowards” to describe the country’s approach to race, Holder’s theme appears to reflect the Obama administration’s appeal for more direct discussions on race.

Inspired by a speech on race given by then-Sen. Barack Obama in Philadelphia during the presidential campaign, Holder pushed for more dialogue between races on a personal level, rather than waiting for an event in the public sphere to demand it.

However, it is these very public events and the discussions that often follow that are at the heart of criticism surrounding Holder’s remarks.

Opinion & Analysis: Is the discussion already happening?

Mirroring the response to Obama’s earlier speech, some critics were quick to dispute the definition of a “discussion on race,” suggesting that America is continuously discussing the issue of race.

Writing for the National Review, Jim Geraghty cited a number of high-profile discussions on race in the last 20 years, including a similar call for national debate by Bill Clinton and Obama’s Philadelphia speech as proof that calls for a broader discussion were misguided.

Although he wrote his editorial a month before Holder’s speech, Bob Ray Sanders of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram stated that a further national discussion was actually necessary to avoid the controversy that surrounds such public events, which he suggested arise from confusion and suspicion on both sides.

Further, Geraghty suggested that the passion involved in such debates has created an overly sensitive environment that intimidates contrasting points of view.

Though he said that the discussion mentioned by Holder already exists, he followed up by saying “whatever ‘cowardice’ or reluctance he diagnoses would appear to be justified, as ‘frank conversations’ usually result in accusations of racism, and pretty severe repercussions for those deemed by society at large as racist,” concluding, “The country will have that ‘frank discussion’ when you can no longer be fired for a statement deemed racist by others.”

Echoing Geraghty’s argument, Michelle Malkin wrote on her blog that a discussion exists, but suggested that it was too often one-sided and driven by a single point of view.

“In the Age of Obama, ‘talking enough with each other about race’ means the rest of us shutting up while being subjected to lectures about our insensitivity and insufficient integration on the weekends,” Malkin wrote.

Laying blame across the political and racial spectrum, Cenk Uygur of “The Young Turks” radio show suggested that a new discussion on race in America was needed, but appealed to both sides to explore each side’s motivations before judging a person’s intent.

“If we’re going to have a useful conversation about race in this country, we can’t have everyone walking on eggshells,” Cenk wrote. “Let’s afford people the opportunity to take some risks and to say things they might not otherwise say in mixed company.”

However, while most critics of the speeches given by Obama and Holder insist a necessary discussion already exists, a minority has suggested no such dialogue is needed and will only serve to stir up ill feelings.

Alabama state Rep. Jay Love, known for his opposition to a state apology to victims of slavery, said the time had passed for discussing race in America.

“I think that we’ve discussed it too much, to tell you the truth,” Love told The Oregonian following Obama’s campaign speech. “If we have this conversation, what gets accomplished? That’s what I want to know. To what end?”

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