(The Root) — As the Supreme Court prepares to decide three potentially historic civil rights cases, the nation's leading legal advocate weighed in on America's civil rights evolution. Thursday evening Attorney General Eric Holder joined a star-studded roster, which included filmmaker Spike Lee and actress Rosie Perez, at the National Action Network's annual gala in New York City, hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton.
Everyone there to hear Holder deliver his keynote address likely recalled that in a previous speech, he delivered one of the most memorable lines about the state of American race relations uttered this century. Shortly after becoming attorney general, Holder courted criticism and controversy, as well as kudos, for saying the following during remarks at a Justice Department Black History event: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we — I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards." The accusation of cowardice set off a firestorm — particularly among conservatives.
Speaking with Holder the night of the gala, The Root asked if he still thinks we are a nation of cowards when it comes to race. "I think we are a nation that is hesitant to discuss racial issues, and I think that is something I tried to say in that speech. I continue to believe that we are too hesitant to raise issues of race and to discuss them forthrightly, but I think we are in a better place than we once were racially," Holder said. "But we are not where we need to be in spite of the fact that Barack Obama is the president of the United States. There's still an undercurrent in this nation of racial disquiet, racial un-comfortability, that we as a nation are reluctant to confront." He did say, however, that he does not agree with those who posit that race relations have deteriorated under President Obama's leadership, despite some polls indicating that they have.
Holder cited a number of ongoing civil rights battles, among them the issues currently before the Supreme Court — affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage — as important and noteworthy. But when asked specifically what the Justice Department will be doing to address New York's controversial "stop and frisk" policy, which many consider America's next great civil rights battle, the attorney general declined to answer since they are "in the process of looking at it," with the matter "under review" at the Justice Department. He did explain that he considers the issue to be a significant one.
Stop and frisk has been proven to disproportionately target young men of color. When asked about his own personal experiences with racial profiling, Holder explained that he had been a victim. "I happened to be one of those people stopped, on two occasions. Once stopped by a state trooper and told to open up my trunk. I wasn't a law student and didn't really know what my rights were and asked, 'Why?' [The trooper said,] 'I want to check to see if you have any weapons in your trunk.' I opened the trunk, and I remember the feeling I had. I was mad. I was humiliated."
He continued, "And the second time I was with a bunch of my friends. We were going from Columbia, where I was in law school, with friends. [We were] three or four black guys in a car. [We were] stopped, and I don't even know what the pretext was, but we were just stopped." (Ironically, as a deputy attorney general Holder would end up playing a role in ending rampant racial profiling by New Jersey State Troopers on the same New Jersey thruway where he was once targeted as a young student.)
He said he opposes racial profiling, and not just as a violation of civil rights, but because it makes communities more dangerous, not less. "So I've experienced that," he said of profiling, "and I remember how badly I felt, how angry I felt and what a negative view — at least, for me, it was a temporary one — it gave me of the police. That is why these laws are so ultimately counterproductive. The very people who the police are supposed to serve and need police services the greatest oftentimes have these negative interactions with the police. [They] then come to view the police in a very negative way and then don't share information with them. It hurts the law-enforcement effort."
When it comes to combating profiling, the Justice Department is committed to providing the necessary support and oversight to law-enforcement officials to make sure they are doing the right thing, Holder said. But he added these words of caution: "There are other things we have to do. As a black man who has a young son who's 15 years old, I've had The Conversation with him: how he's supposed to interact with the police if he's ever stopped, and I told him there are certain things you say, certain things you do, certain places you place your hands."
Perhaps most telling is how Holder said he has counseled his son. "If you're treated in a way that you think is not appropriate, you just have to maybe take it for that moment and deal with it later on when you are in a position to talk to somebody who is perhaps that person's superior. It's a terrible thing, but it is a reality that the attorney general of the United States has to have this conversation with his son, but I have."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.