For the first Black president, a man controlled by circumstance and temperament, it proved enormously useful to step out with someone who could serve as his public soapbox — a man who could blast streams of anger and outrage without a care about who it offended.
But Holder is walking out of the White House after the president finds his successor — surely after the midterm elections — having left an indelible impression on the body politic.
Harvard professor Charles Ogletree, a longtime friend of both Holder and Obama, once called Holder a “race man”— if it is true, a strong argument can be made that he is the most powerful race man in American history.
Never in doubt was his love for his people or his willingness to speak loudly on our behalf.
And not only did Holder talk the talk, he was willing to walk the walk. Time and again, he used his post as the lead law enforcement official in the land to make substantive changes to the criminal code, to rewrite sentencing guidelines, to alter the way U.S. attorneys approach their jobs. The cumulative effect will have a major impact on the experiences of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.
It has been said that every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. How ironic then that a dashing figure so bold and unabashedly race conscious should take the form of the leader of the American criminal justice system — a system clearly designed to engineer and perpetuate Black subjugation.
From the very beginning, Eric Himpton Holder Jr., 63, this former Superior Court judge and U.S. attorney, made clear that he was fashioned from different material than his partner in the Oval Office. He appeared to have no traces of the president’s famous caution. Could a man afraid of consequence stand up on a stage so early in his tenure and tell America that, on the question of race, it was “essentially a nation of cowards”?
After explosive, headline-grabbing racial incidents like the ramblings of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling or the New Hampshire police commissioner who called Obama a “f***ing n****r,” Holder warned graduates of Morgan State University, the historically Black school in Baltimore, not to be distracted by overt racism.
“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 pointed to a federal study 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 fought so hard against states passing voting rights laws that discriminate against Blacks that the conservative Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial accusing him of using fear and accusations of racism to incite Black voters to flock to the polls in 2012.
Of course the commander-in-chief deserves enormous credit for Holder’s brashness — he wouldn’t be sitting astride Justice, saying the things he says, without the president’s active consent and tangible support. Surely, there must have been many loaded moments when Obama had to look some aide or Cabinet member in the eye and tell them Holder is untouchable.
“There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me [and] directed at the president,” Holder has said, stating that he and Obama are treated differently than their predecessors. “You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.”
Holder drove Republicans crazy. At times it appeared as if their hatred of the attorney general rivaled their contempt of Obama. Never was this clearer than during the Fast and Furious gun running scandal, when they ravenously attacked Holder over mistakes and decisions largely made by his predecessors during the Bush administration. When he refused to hand over all the documents requested by scandal-hungry Republicans — in effect giving Congress a big fat middle finger — Republicans got together and voted him in contempt of Congress, the first time in history for a cabinet member.
But after the vote, the AG’s level of concern seemed about on par with his likely reaction if his dog had peed on the carpet.
Holder gave off a distinct aura: He was not afraid of Congress or anybody else. This is not to imply that his boss is, but Holder seemed to wear his lack of care, his disdain, like a badge of honor.
He was a Denzel Washington character writ large, striding through the corridors of Washington with an enormous chip on his shoulder, a Bronx boy (with Caribbean heritage) daring his detractors to say it to his face.
His critics tried to fault him for a political tin ear, but from where we stood it looked instead like cojones, made of some steely material. He knew the political thing to say, but he refused to say it, like a fancy-suited Tupac.
As African-Americans rise through the ranks of our various professions, we all face the question of how much race pride we will wear on our sleeve. Will we let our white colleagues know how hard we ride for our people, how far we are willing to go to ensure that the company does right by Black folks? Are we going to speak up when the company makes a wrong move — or more controversially, are we going to make strong moves to improve the plight of our people, even if we know it will make the white people mad?
Holder answered every question with bravura worthy of W.E.B Du Bois. And if you still weren’t clear where he stood, he was ready with a story from his childhood, a trenchant saga elucidating the challenges of life in his brown skin — making it obvious: “I stand with them.“