Once again taking on his apparent role as the racial conscience of the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder used a commencement address at Morgan State University in Baltimore to deliver an incisive, powerful message about the pernicious effects of systemic racism in arenas like the criminal justice system and voting rights.
Holder, who has addressed racism probably more than any other member of the administration, warned the assembled graduates to not get distracted by the explosive, headline-grabbing racial incidents like the ramblings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling or the New Hampshire police commissioner who called Obama a “f****g n****r.”
“Because if we focus solely on these incidents – on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter – we are likely to miss the more hidden and more troubling reality behind the headlines,” Holder said. “The greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines.”
Holder challenged the 850 graduates to fight against disciplinary, voting and other policies that quietly and gradually harm minorities.
“This is the work that truly matters – because policies that disenfranchise specific groups are more pernicious than hateful rants,” Holder said. “Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work, and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise.”
Holder specifically addressed inequities in the criminal justice system, an area in which he has been waging a personal battle for years. He pointed to a federal study released last year showing that Black men and Native Americans endure prison sentences far longer than white men for similar crimes.
“A criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently – and punishes them unequally – has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand,” he said.
“Disparate outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable. They impede our ability to see that justice is done.”
Holder has been a favored target of the right-wing for years—nearly as much as President Obama—because he has shown a fearlessness in going after his enemies. He once called Americans “cowards,” who are afraid to confront racial issues and who segregate themselves on weekends by going to the “race-protected cocoons” known as malls.
While he didn’t mention any racists by name, he did cite “jarring reminders of the discrimination,” “outbursts of bigotry,” and “isolated, repugnant, racist views” that have been in the news during the past few weeks and months.
Holder went after Chief Justice John Roberts, attacking his decision to maintain Michigan’s ban on considering race in college admissions.
“This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted,” Holder said. “In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.”
According to the attorney general, giving less consideration to race was the exact opposite of what needed to happen. Open and frank discussion is needed, he said.
“Wherever you go and whatever you do, you must find your own unique ways to contribute; to blaze a path for the next generation of Morgan graduates; and to keep challenging this nation to become even greater, even fairer, and even more committed to its founding ideals,” he told the graduates.
“After all, 60 years and one day ago, schools and other public accommodations could legally refuse entry to men like my father,” Holder said, referring to the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. “Today, that devoted soldier’s son stands before you as the 82nd attorney general of the United States of America – proudly serving in the administration of the first African-American president to lead this nation.
“That’s a powerful illustration of the greatness and possibility that is America – and the debt we owe to all who have dedicated their lives to building the more just and more perfect union that remains our common pursuit.”