"A nation of cowards": What Eric Holder needs to say today

As the attorney general heads to Ferguson, here's what he must do to really combat America's racial injustice

Published August 20, 2014 3:44PM (EDT)

Attorney General Eric Holder                   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General Eric Holder (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

This piece has been corrected since it first published.

Later today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to meet with law enforcement officials around the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Following in the footsteps of the Trayvon Martin killing and last month’s NYPD’s chokehold death of Eric Garner, racial tensions in some parts of America have spilled out into open view in a way that's reminiscent of the LAPD’s infamous beating of Rodney King.

For the past six years, President Obama has often chosen to avoid speaking in the language of racial justice. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” is as close to justified anger America’s first black president has offered. America’s first black attorney general, Eric Holder, however, has gone further. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Holder said in a speech given during Black History Month in 2009, “in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

With his visit today, it’s time for Holder to go further still. It’s time to utter the three words that have inflicted more racial injustice against black men than any other three words in the English lexicon: prison industrial complex.

The 19th century Russian novelist and journalist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If Dostoyevsky is right, then the U.S. is a nation of racist barbarians.

There are currently more than 2.5 million Americans behind bars. This country puts its citizens in cages like no other developed nation on earth. Further striking is the fact that while people of color make up 30 percent of the general population, they represent more than 65 percent of the prison population.

Not only has the U.S. criminalized poverty, it has also handed over its legal and penal system to the corporate for-profit state. “Poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. This use of the bodies of the poor to make money for corporations fuels the system of neoslavery that defines our prison system,” writes Chris Hedges.

The prison industrial complex is an interweaving of business and government interests. It serves to feed two private purposes: profit and social control. Its publicly stated goals are a little more Orwellian: “to fight crime and keep violent criminals off our streets.” But the latter is a self-serving lie. Violence occurs in less than 14 percent of reported crime, and injuries occur in less than 3 percent. In fact, violent crimes don’t even occur in the top 10 reasons for incarceration.

The number of people behind bars for drug violations has risen from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 1 million today, which represents a nearly 2,000 percent increase. Moreover, more than 80 percent of these arrests were for drug possession, and half of these for marijuana. Even more telling is the fact that whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rate, but blacks are 400 percent more likely to be incarcerated for possession.

The war on drugs isn’t a war on drugs at all. It’s a war on black and brown people. Draconian drug laws have not only filled state prisons with nonviolent criminals, but have also funded the militarization of police departments via federal grants.

The city of Ferguson is representative of some of America’s worst urban problems. High unemployment rates and a lack of access to affordable education and vocational training are the fertile grounds for the prison-industrial complex. “There are tens of millions of poor people for whom this country is nothing more than a vast, extended penal colony,” says Noam Chomsky. The 1960s civil rights activist Malcolm X referred to the nation’s urban ghettos as “our internal colonies.”

There has been much written about America’s two-tiered justice system. A system that sets out one set of rules for wealthy whites, while another is set out for poor blacks. If you need an illustration, consider that Cliven Bundy’s supporters actually pointed semi-automatic weapons at federal cops, and those same cops gave them pizza. Michael Brown, however, was unarmed and is now dead. If he were still alive, it’s not hard to imagine he’d now be in prison, awaiting trial without the financial means to pay for bond or an effective attorney.

The nation’s largest private prison company is Corrections Corporation of America. If you wish to participate in what has been compared to the modern-day slave trade, you can buy shares in the company on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker code CXW. In 2013, CCA announced it would be paying a massive dividend of $675 million to its shareholders. With record profits, the company seeks to grow its core business – locking up black dudes, and with a powerful lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., it helps ensure lawmakers continue to enact draconian nonviolent drug laws.

Holder has made steps in a positive direction. In August 2013, he announced that low-level drug offenders (not connected to organized crime) would no longer be charged with crimes that impose mandatory minimums. In March, he went a step further, advocating to the U.S. Sentencing Commission a decrease in minimum sentences for a wide range of drug offenses. His proposal would reduce drug-related prison sentences by an average of 11 months (from 62 months to 51 months), decreasing the federal inmate population by 6,550 over five years. “Half of American inmates are serving drug sentences, and those inmates are disproportionately African-American.”

The time for flowery rhetoric is over. “What is called for is nothing more, and nothing less than … that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well,” said Obama.

But the failure and refusal of the current U.S. president and attorney general to decry the exploding mass incarceration and police harassment of the poor, and especially of African-Americans, will result in the continued justifiable rage and further civil unrest.

In Holder’s own words, “In things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” It’s time for Holder to be brave.

By CJ Werleman

CJ Werleman is the author of "Crucifying America" and "God Hates You. Hate Him Back." You can follow him on Twitter:  @cjwerleman