Yesterday, Eric Holder — the country’s first Black Attorney General — gave a speech to DoJ employees in honor of Black History Month. (AP Story; Text of remarks.) The thing that’s been getting particular attention (though, actually, less than I might have expected; perhaps people are just really too busy paying attention to, you know, the ongoing catastrophic meltdown of the world economy) is mainly this line:
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.
Before I continue to talk about this, I’m going to go off on a tangent for a little bit, because it’s my blog, and I can do that.
It seems to me that “the race speech” is an expected rite of passage for PoC politicians and other public figures in America. The person of color, having unsettled white America by ascending to a position of power, must give a thoughtful, nuanced, and above all eloquent speech on the subject of race, confirming in the minds of those unsettled that he or she is, after all, exceptional (and thus not a genuine threat to the extant social order), and reassuring them that everyone bears a share of the responsibility for ongoing racial problems in America (and thus they, on behalf of white people, aren’t being accused of racism) — which anyway are of course much less bad than they were, and really can be solved by everyone making little, painless adjustments in their everyday behavior.
If it’s not abundantly clear how much is wrong with that, on how many different levels, then I’m not sure how to make it more clear. Let me point out, by the way, that this is not a criticism of the PoC public figures placed in this position, or any kind of claim to know what’s in their minds with respect to these speeches and their effects; nor indeed to suggest that the above is necessarily a reasonable reception for such speeches — only that I think this is how they are generally received by white America.
It is not the responsibility of those who have suffered centuries of oppression at the hands of others, and who continue to be disadvantaged by the social and economic structures and norms that developed during those centuries, to help those who have benefited from oppressing them, and who continue to benefit from those same inequitable social and economic structures and norms to feel better about themselves and their history. So suggest that it is, as the expectation of the race speech implicitly does, is nothing less than insane. (I suppose it also supports Holder’s point: that we are indeed cowardly on this topic.)
All right, back to the subject at hand: AG Holder’s actual speech. I think it’s a good speech, and I think he’s right about a lot of things; though I also think he gives too little attention to ongoing structural problems, I understand the political reasons for treading lightly around those. Perhaps, if enough Americans take this speech seriously and act on it, we will finally begin to be able to approach these issues with more maturity, and honestly own up to the things that are wrong. (After all, if we don’t claim them, they aren’t ours to fix.) But Holder raises a lot of very important, and I think correct, points.
Both Rachel S.’s take at Alas! and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s (which has the MSNBC video of the speech embedded) are worthwhile reading. Coates’s criticisms are intriguing to me (I don’t think I agree with them, though) — in some ways, I’d say the speech’s boringness, its workaday matter-of-factness, is actually a strength. The Attorney General’s delivery serves this purpose well, too. He’s not a fiery, electrifying or inspiring orator like the President is; he’s not exhorting or demanding, he’s just saying how things are and what needs to be done.
I’m going to end here. Ultimately, I don’t know how comfortable I am taking on the role of yet another white guy declaiming about race: white people shouldn’t get to set the terms of this debate. So these are just my first-draft, rough-cut opinions, with some links to thinks I think worth reading, and I’m happy to be disagreed with.