Visible Man

Why Eric Holder’s “race speech” was better than Barack Obama’s.

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Eric Holder’s confrontational speech to members of the Justice Department on Wednesday spoke plainly and bluntly about the level of racial discourse in America. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” he said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” However equivocal his windup, Holder’s line was a punch in the face to America. As top cop of the United States, it’s his job to play the disciplinarian—but the lengthy admonition, given in honor of Black History Month, by the first African American attorney general, was the verbal equivalent to shock and awe.

"On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago,” Holder said. “This is truly sad.” He spoke, with a tinge of bitterness, of the “polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little.” Sure, blacks and whites mingle at the workplace or in the marketplace, on the subway or in line at the deli, but voluntary segregation, he assured his listeners, is still rampant.

America talked a lot about race during the 2008 campaign. We chewed over Barack Obama’s biraciality, his cleanliness and articulateness, the question of whether he'd be black enough, the reluctance of older blacks to back him, Michelle Obama’s American-ness and her collegiate views on race relations, the role of the Hispanic vote in sending western swing states into the blue column, and the maelstrom of commentary that followed the “revelation” that when it comes to race, Pastor Jeremiah Wright is not, in fact, a big fan of the United States.

But we never really went there. Not like Eric Holder did. Obama's March 2008 speech in Philadelphia, "A More Perfect Union," was greeted with a sense of collective relief in America. "This was his kairos moment," said one black minister at the time, using the Greek word for "destiny." I agree. Amen. Tell it, brother. Obama for America capitalized on the positive reception of the disquisition—selling $12 DVDs of “A More Perfect Union” and almost daring rival campaigns to bring up Wright or race again. They did not. The final analysis: case closed.

Holder, in lawyerly fashion, cracked the case back open. There is, of course, the argument that Obama was running for president, while Holder has his job sewn up. Or that Obama’s speech as given by a man forced to talk about race in America, and Holder’s was given by a man who chose to. But that’s too simple. Obama, by all accounts, had been chomping at the bit to give a speech on race during the campaign. Advisers gave the OK, but the 45-minute oration wasn’t written in three days. The words were the worry beads Obama had been clacking about in his head for months, years even—the same thoughts that clack about the heads of most people of color.

So why did Holder’s words seem so confrontational, so angry, so “un-Obama”? Most notable was Holder’s unequivocal habitation of the black perspective. Obama’s careful speech was eager to embrace many sides: the worker who feels maligned, the old preacher who feels burned by the American dream. Holder offered no such accommodation: “The history of the United States in the nineteenth century revolves around a resolution of the question of how America was going to deal with its black inhabitants,” he said. “The fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment.”

I watched Obama’s 2008 race speech with my white colleagues in a conference room in Washington. It was a spectacular speech. But Holder's comments are a much more productive, proactive take on race in America and, in some ways, can be seen as a critique of the message of Obama’s stump pitch. In the Philadelphia speech, Obama prettified the sentencing disparities, employment discrimination and affirmative action battles that are the province of the U.S. Justice Department. He spent more time explaining Chicago’s Trinity United Church, the subject of the uproar that prompted his address. “Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger,” he said. However charming (or disarming) it seemed at the time, Holder’s point is more relevant—most churches today are still all black or all white, and in 2009, such voluntary segregation isn’t going to move America forward.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the author tells the story of Bertha, the part-black “madwoman in the attic” of the earlier title, who was married to Jane’s love, Mr. Rochester, and who has been shut above the house and out of sight. The 1966 text restores a voice to the woman of color who was only mentioned in passing in Bronte’s novel, animating not only the world she endures in gloomy England but her past life in Dominica. Jean Rhys, a white woman from Dominica, brought the madwoman down from the Attic and into public consciousness.

I mention Bertha not to dwell on literary treatments of a living problem. But Rhys’ rejection of one-sided histories is also a rejection of invisibility—the same principle that animates Holder’s loud and public call to action. In a sense, his speech was aimed at fighting racial invisibility—the opposite of the unifying instincts that are so valuable to a politician running for national office.

America has embraced Obama for talking the talk. While Obama may have paved the way for him to do so, Eric Holder is walking the walk.

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