Eric Holder (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Eric Holder's parting shot: Police abuse scandals mean the nation has "failed"

Holder’s frank comments, plus the president opening up about being mistaken for a valet, show a new candor on race


Joan Walsh
December 17, 2014 10:04PM (UTC)

Attorney General Eric Holder got himself virtually muzzled early in President Obama’s first term, when he called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” for our inability to deal frankly with issues of race. On his way out the door, he’s not worried about his critics. He told MSNBC’s Joy Reid that ongoing troubles in limiting police violence mean “we, as a nation, have failed. It’s as simple as that. We have failed.”

It’s a grim verdict, but it’s hard to quarrel. Holder was a deputy U.S. attorney back in 2001, when the Justice Department announced it would not prosecute the New York police officers who famously fired 41 shots at unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, hitting him 19 times. Though Justice concluded it couldn’t make a civil rights case against the officers, Holder warned at the time:  "We must learn from this deeply troubling incident. Mr. Diallo, an unarmed individual who committed no crime and no act of aggression, unnecessarily lost his life."

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Now, 13 years later, similar “deeply troubling” incidents still occur regularly, and they’ve touched off a new movement for reform. While Holder speaks in measured ways, throughout the interview, about the mutual distrust between police and “communities of color,” and the work the Justice Department is doing to bridge those gaps, he places himself within the national reform movement. For a while he uses “they” when talking about protesters, but then he shifts significantly to “we.”

“That's all we're asking for — just make the nation better,” he tells Reid. And the interview wraps.

On the same day the president opened up to People and said "There's no black male my age, who's a professional” who hasn’t been mistaken for a parking valet, Holder’s exit interview shows a new comfort with candor about race in Obama’s second term. It may make heads on the right explode, but so be it. Michelle Malkin is already howling about first lady Michelle Obama’s story of being mistaken for a store clerk by a Target shopper on her incognito trip there in 2011.

In the interview with Reid -- which is running in New York magazine and airing on "The Reid Report" -- Holder talks passionately about voting rights setbacks in recent years, calling out the Republican Party for its support of voter suppression measures, while praising GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner for his work to restore the Voting Rights Act.

This is a gut check for the Republican Party. Where do you stand? Are you gonna be true to the values and the history of a great party? Or are you gonna do something that, in the short term, is politically expedient but that, ultimately, you will find historically shameful?

He says he trusts his chosen successor, deputy U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, to continue his pursuit of voting rights violations – though at least one Republican, Sen. David Vitter, has vowed to block Lynch because of the president’s moves on immigration.

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While Holder uses his elbows when it comes to issues, he’s diplomatic on the topic of whether race has been a factor in his tough relationship with the House GOP.

Hard to say. I mean, the attorney general seems to be, lately, the person, whether you are white, black, Republican, Democrat, who catches a lot of grief. So there's that — that's just a part of the position.

I can't look into the hearts and minds of people who have been, perhaps, my harshest critics. I think a large part of the criticism is political in nature. Whether there is a racial component or not, I don't know.

But when Reid asks if he still thinks we’re a nation of cowards when it comes to race, he doesn’t back down. “Yeah, we've not done all that we can. I'm hopeful that, at this time, with this president, that we can make progress in ways that we have not in the past.”

I still think the Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Hawkins’ eloquent remarks about why he wore a shirt protesting the police killings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford was hands down the most affecting talk about race this week. But Holder and the Obamas are doing their part to help the nation evolve beyond cowardice.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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