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February 19, 2009

Will AG Holder urge the criminal justice system to "examine its racial soul"?

As detailed in this CNN article, Attorney General Eric Holder gave his first major speech yesterday, and it was a barn-burner about race relations and race discussions in the United States.  Here is how the CNN piece describes the speech:

In a blunt assessment of race relations in the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday called the American people "essentially a nation of cowards" in failing to openly discuss the issue of race.  Eric Holder spoke to an overflowing crowd for Black History Month at the Justice Department Wednesday.

In his first major speech since being confirmed, the nation's first black attorney general told an overflow crowd celebrating Black History Month at the Justice Department the nation remains "voluntarily socially segregated."

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder declared.

Holder urged Americans of all races to use Black History Month as a time to have a forthright national conversation between blacks and whites to discuss aspects of race which are ignored because they are uncomfortable.

The full text of this interesting speech can be accessed at this link. Notably, crime (but not punishment) is mentioned briefly toward the end of the speech in this somewhat peculiar paragraph:

And today the link between the black experience and this country is still evident.  While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken.  Our inner cities are still too conversant with crime but the level of fear generated by that crime, now found in once quiet, and now electronically padlocked suburbs is alarming and further demonstrates that our past, present and future are linked. It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society.

I find it is telling and disappointing that racial disparities in state and federal criminal justice systems (and the related problem of mass incarceration for young black men) do not get mentioned by the nation's top law enforcement officer when calling upon the county to "examine its racial soul."  As everyone who works in criminal justice systems know, that racial soul is on full display in criminal courts and in prisons and jails every day.  As I have been saying for years (examples here and here), the reality of racial disparities in modern crime and punishment demands that criminal justice reforms should and must be at the heart of any serious modern civil rights movement.

I am encouraged that the new AG wants Americans to have frank discussions about race in the United States.  I hope he will show he is willing to stimulate hard conversations talking bluntly in future speeches about the racial realities of modern crime and punishment.

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February 19, 2009 at 09:51 AM | Permalink


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So I assume that Holder will now start to vigorously prosecute all the Latino/black violence (which has a serious racial component) in Southern California.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 19, 2009 10:08:22 AM

"As everyone who works in criminal justice systems know, that racial soul is on full display in criminal courts and in prisons and jails every day. As I have been saying for years (examples here and here), the reality of racial disparities in modern crime and punishment demands that criminal justice reforms should and must be at the heart of any serious modern civil rights movement."

So Doug, you gonna take on the "urban discount"?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 19, 2009 11:21:08 AM

A very inauspicious debut for the highest law enforcement officer in the land in my view. We have many more tangible issues for the AG to address than to mimic the discredited drivel of the Sharptons and Jacksons.

It is disingenuous to call for a frank discussion of race when any words of candor run the very real risk of having one castigated and labeled a racist.

The high percentage of blacks in prison is a reflection of crime rates, not bigotry. There is no credible evidence that police, prosecutors, and judges treat whites and blacks differently " for the same crime."

Posted by: mjs | Feb 19, 2009 11:33:04 AM

I'm not even sure what people claim the problem that needs discussion actually /is/. A national discussion on race means what exactly, especially after seeing that the nation is willing to elect a 1/2 first generation American? (I personally find that more surprising than the election of a more native African American would have been).

How is a self-perpetuating sub-culture of single parentage, crime and poverty /supposed/ to be addressed?

Are we to overlook real crimes because of the background of the offender? Healing needs to come from within. Like the joke about how many shrinks it takes to change a light bulb, the people have to want change. Opportunity is worth very little if it is rejected.

In a way, this seems right on par with your last post about the growing proportion of Latino convicts in Federal custody as enforcement priorities shift. Is such enforcement not a legitimate policy choice? The result seems like an inevitable offshoot of that particular choice. And if it is a legitimate policy choice why should anyone care what percentage of Federal prison space is taken by people of whatever race/ethnicity?

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 19, 2009 11:49:50 AM

We must also keep in mind that there are limits to what government can change. With regard to being "voluntarily socially segregated," it is often noted that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning. What can government do about that? Nothing. The cure would be worse than the disease, not to mention unconstitutional.

Some things will change only when people's attitudes change. Government can't force it.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 19, 2009 12:02:41 PM

As Sononel cogently argues above, the discussion should start with the black community coming to grips with its own self- defeating culture of single parentage. Poverty and social disorder are a direct outgrowth of the unstable black family.
Single-parent homes fail to supply boys with a resident father who can model the importance of education and gainful employment.

Posted by: mjs | Feb 19, 2009 2:08:06 PM

"Some things will change only when people's attitudes change. Government can't force it."

I agree Kent. The basic problem is that people will find whatever excuse they want to for discrimination. There are white people who hate Jews, dark-skinned blacks who hate light-skinned blacks, people who are Asian that hate people of mixed race. Even if white people and black people were to live in perfect harmony the idea this would be a body blow against racism is laughable.

Discrimination is part of human nature and some people, for many different reasons, will chose to discriminate based on skin color. No national conversation is going to change that fact.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 19, 2009 6:09:52 PM

Doug is right that the racial soul is on display in the criminal courts. During my last capital trial of a black defendant killing a white victim, I asked a general question of the jurors if there was any reason that any juror thought he could not be fair to both sides.

A juror raised his hand and said, " your client doesn't want me on his jury. He's black and I'm prejudiced." I thanked him for his candor and he of course was excused for cause. I am confident there are many jurors who feel the same way who are not so candid.

Who lives and who dies is too important a decision to be clouded with color.
If we don't want to talk about it, we avoid reality.

Bruce Cunningham

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Feb 19, 2009 8:37:56 PM

Bruce. Well, he could have just been trying to get out of jury duty. It does happen.

"If we don't want to talk about it, we avoid reality."

Really? It seems to me that all talking about it does is perpetuate the reality we want to end. One of the big problems I have with so-called solutions to racism is that there is no end game. It's like the war on drugs. At what point in time will we, as a society, know that we have won. With reparations? With no people of color in jail? An African-American in the White House? I'm not defending racism by any means but I can't escape the fact that racial minorities in America have made significant strides in the last 100 years. And I grow tired at what seems to me a relentless search for perfection. "Perfect harmony" is not a humanly attainable goal. And so when do we, as a society, say enough is enough. And if it's not here and now, when, where, and how will we know?

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 20, 2009 12:19:50 AM

Heather Macdonald takes aim at Holder.


Amazing how a corrupt insider like Holder would try to lecture anyone on anything. Of course, he's just following Obama's lead. After all, Obama told the world that he was inspired by the trite and racist comment that "white folks' greed runs a world in need" and he decided to characterize a vicious six-on-one stomping of an unconscious white student by black assailants a "schoolyard fight", and then decided that he should be leading a national conversation on race. Wow. That takes a certain testicularity.

Holder is a thoroughly contemptible man. Obama is not much better.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 20, 2009 12:39:31 AM

Inequality among white and black American had been a very big issue for a long time, well all of this suddenly changed when Obama had been elected as the new president of the United States. let's wait and see what the new president can offer to us.

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