Race, the right, and Eric Holder

As with Obama, it's foolish to pretend race is totally unrelated to the right’s four-year assault on the AG

Published June 22, 2012 12:25PM (EDT)

The House GOP’s drive to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress is headed for a vote by the full chamber next week. It will probably end up being symbolic, but the outcome seems preordained.

Republicans hold a majority in the House, and few administrations officials besides the president himself arouse the kind of hostility on the right that Holder does. In the Obama/Tea Party-era, when every GOP office-holder lives in fear of being deemed disloyal to the tribe and facing a primary challenge, it’s hard to imagine any House Republican not giving the base exactly what it wants and voting for the citation.

The right’s hostility toward Holder, as I mentioned on “Hardball” last night, precedes the current controversy over the ATF’s aborted Fast and Furious program. It extends back to … pretty much the moment he was picked by Obama in late 2008 to run the Justice Department. Michael Smerconish, who was filling in as host, asked me where I think it comes from and I suggested “there might be an aspect of race and culture” to it. My attempt to elaborate provoked no shortage of anger from some conservative sites. Let me try again.

The first thing to recognize is how flimsy the Fast and Furious “scandal” is, at least as it relates to the Obama administration. It’s been driven by conservative media outlets for more than a year, and as Dana Milbank explained in a Thursday column, it’s hard not to see the right’s focus on it as much more than an attempt to use a genuine tragedy to go after Obama:

[ATF Agent Brian] Terry’s death is indeed a scandal, part of the “Fast and Furious” operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of 2,000 guns it was planning to trace on their way to Mexican drug cartels; two of those firearms were found near Terry’s body. After that, the Justice Department shut down the program (which followed similar “gun-walking” operations during the George W. Bush administration), fired or reassigned several people who ran the program out of ATF’s Phoenix office, requested an inspector-general investigation and handed over about 7,600 pages of records to Issa’s committee.

Republicans want to know whether top officials at Justice or the White House knew about the gun-walking program, which, although they haven’t turned up evidence of this, would be a reasonable line of inquiry. But casting doubt on their motives are the documents they are demanding: only those since February 2011 — two months after Terry was killed and the program was shut down.

There’s an element of basic opposition party posturing in all of this, but again, the right’s contempt for Holder predates Fast and Furious – and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that at least part of it is an extension of the racially-charged attacks and insinuations that have been part of the right’s assault on Obama.

Think of Rush Limbaugh warning that “in Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” depicting Obama as a burglar, and declaring that “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations; think of Glenn Beck insisting that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people”; or the late Andrew Breitbart giddily leaping to false conclusion that Shirley Sherrod is bigoted against white people. These are just some obvious examples of an effort to portray the Obama presidency as a triumph of black radicalism or anti-white hostility. The idea, it seems, is to feed a sense of alarm among whites that their money, their livelihoods, and their basic place in society are all being threatened by someone who favors another group – the same kind of feelings that fed the civil rights backlash decades ago.

Viewed this way, it doesn’t seem coincidental that Holder became a target when he was nominated. After all, he wasn’t chosen to run just any Cabinet department; he was picked to be the government’s top law enforcement officer. For anyone who shares Limbaugh’s belief that it’s open season on white people in Obama’s America, this had to be a particularly unsettling development.

Holder’s appointment came as some on the right were beginning to play up the New Black Panther Party (“a cartoonish fringe group,” as Alex Pareene describes it), suggesting that Obama’s election had been aided by its voter intimidation efforts and that the new president was sympathetic to the group’s ideology. This has led to periodic claims over the past few years that the attorney general is looking the other way while the New Black Panthers flout the law ad gain strength.

Holder’s statement early in his tenure that America has been “a nation of cowards” when it comes to talking honestly about race agitated the right further. He was talking about all Americans, not just whites, but stripped of its context, the line played right into the notion that he, like his boss, is driven by some kind of anti-white bias or resentment. More recently, his Justice Department’s fight against Florida’s voter ID law has probably had a similar effect.

This doesn’t mean Holder deserves blanket exoneration for anything he does or that all conservatives who criticize him or Obama have a racial motivation for doing so. Fast and Furious, as I wrote, is primarily the story of an opposition party that’s eager to stick a scandal on a president. The same thing happened to Bill Clinton when he was in the White House. But Holder is part of this story, and the right has had it in for him for almost four years now. And race is part of that story.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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