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The Conservative Curmudgeon
March 10, 2009

Eric Holder’s America: A Different Land
by Allan C. Brownfeld

In an incredible speech to employees at the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder declared: “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” He charged that, “We, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

Calling those with whom he seeks dialogue “cowards” may not be the best way to move forward. Clearly, Mr. Holder, our first black attorney general, sought to be provocative. The question raised in many American minds, of all races, is quite different from the one Mr. Holder suggests. It is whether he is living in the same country as the rest of us.

The fact is that America has undergone dramatic change in recent years, change that most black commentators recognize and applaud. The election of our first black president is only part of it. In her book, The Breakthrough: Politics And Race in
the Age of Obama,
Gwen Ifill, managing editor and moderator for “Washington Week” on PBS, focuses on a number of black politicians who, she argues, are transforming American politics. They are children of the civil rights movement, who were born in the l960s and l970s and grew up “in a world shaped by access instead of denial.”

The book is structured around several prominent figures. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, an all-American tight end with degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and Yale, presided over a dramatic drop in his city’s crime. Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor and a Harvard-educated lawyer from Chicago’s South Side, became the state's first black governor “without as much as a dogcatcher's election under his belt.” Congressman Artur Davis, who sidestepped both Alabama’s black and white political establishments while fending off attacks by the Rev. Al Sharpton, declared that, “Everybody of our color is not our kind.”

Ifill moves beyond these well-known figures and highlights others such as Lisa Borders, the Atlantic City Council president, who battles accusations that she is not “black enough.” Borders declares: “You told me to go to school, get my education. You told me to pay my bills in full on time. You told me to give back to the community — Exactly where did I lose my blackness?”

Another figure is South Carolina State Rep. Bakari Sellers, who sees more commonality than difference among his underprivileged black and white constituents. “If you’re poor and black in South Carolina, or poor and white in South Carolina, you face basically the same issues.”

While Barack Obama is the most visible member of this new generation of black political leaders, Ifill points out that he is hardly alone: “The bench is deep, crammed with mayors, state lawmakers, and other rising stars poised to grab at the next brass
ring.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s key adviser as candidate and now as President, describes his “postracial” strategy, noting that “the story of this race is that race didn’t play the decisive role that people thought it would.”

Eric Holder may not have noticed that, as Barack Obama took office, far fewer black and white Americans said they view racism as a “big problem” in American society than said so in mid-l996, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that just over 25 percent of all Americans said they see racism as a large societal problem, less than half of the 54 percent who said so about a dozen years ago.

Richard G. Hatcher, who became one of the nation’s first black mayors when he was elected in l967 to lead Gary, Indiana, said he believed the 2008 election would reshape the perceptions that blacks and whites have of each other. “That’s the great hope,” Hatcher states. “We do not have to be absolutely obsessed with the issue of race anymore. There’s no reason why the vision of America cannot be real.”

Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose notes that when he wrote The Rage Of A Privileged Class in l993, “I argued that many successful black Americans were seething about what they saw as the nation’s broken promise of equal opportunity.... Now, Barack Obama sits in the highest office of the land and a series of high-powered African-Americans have soared to the uppermost realms of their professions. The idea of a glass ceiling is almost laughable. Serious thinkers are searching for a new vocabulary to explain an America where skin color is an unreliable marker of status.... America, in the last decade and a half, has come much further than many thought it could. The rage I wrote about has not vanished, but it has been greatly tempered with more than a modicum of hope.”

The Washington Post charges that Eric Holder has “insufficient appreciation of generational change.... Remember those young Obama supporters chanting ‘race doesn’t matter’ at his victory rallies during the primaries? For them and others in their generation, race doesn’t hold the same power.”

For those of us old enough to have lived in the South during the years of segregation, the changes we have seen were hard to imagine 50 years ago. As a student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, I lived in a place and time when blacks could not eat in public places frequented by whites. Each public place had four restrooms, “Black Men,” “Black Women,” “White Men,” “White Women.” Our little movie theater did not have a balcony, so a segregated section was created by roping off several aisles for the use of black patrons. Blacks not only could not attend the college as students, but they were not welcome as speakers.

In my junior year, as an officer of the Political Science Club, I and several of my fellow members decided that it was time for a change. We invited the distinguished president of the Hampton Institute — the black college down the road — to address our group. Dr. Alonzo Moron (who went on to become president of the American Red Cross and governor of the Virgin Islands) came to Williamsburg; we managed to take him to dinner at the Williamsburg Inn (his light complexion helped a great deal). His address was academic and non-controversial. The result: our group was thrown off campus and I was called to the president’s office.

At this time, I had already been writing a column in the school paper each week and was recognized as something of a conservative. The president said, “I am surprised at you; I thought you were a conservative.” I replied that racism was not one of the things I wanted to conservative. We had our next meeting at the Methodist church.

Eric Holder is living in a time warp. We now live in a society that is a model for the world — in which men and women are judged on their individual merit, not on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic background. Far from being “a nation of cowards,” we are a society that has been able to confront problems and move to resolve them.

More than 50 years ago in the South, many of us strove to alter the old racial patterns. Beyond the expectations of many, this was accomplished. America is not perfect, as our current economic and other problems show us all too clearly. But it is not the America Eric Holder sees. Perhaps he can be persuaded to remove his blinders and see our society as it really is. Perhaps he can find it within himself, finally, to take ‘”yes” for an answer.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation