ERIC HOLDER: Though this nation has probably thought of itself as a ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways, essentially, a nation of cowards.
NORRIS: Holder is the nation's first black attorney general. He was speaking to employees at the Department of Justice, but his remarks were also intended for a broader audience. He said, Americans speak too much of them and not us. And he said this about the discussion of race in the U.S.
HOLDER: The conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects, is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes, who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own self-worth or narrow self-interest.
NORRIS: Here to discuss those remarks with us is Michael Erik Dyson. He's a professor at Georgetown University and the author of several books. Also, Time magazine's political columnist and author Joe Klein. Welcome to both of you.
MICHAEL ERIK DYSON: Thank you.
JOE KLEIN: Good to be here.
NORRIS: Varied reaction to these remarks. Some have applauded Eric Holder's courage. Others took offense to his description of Americans as cowardly. I'm interested in hearing both of your reactions. I'm going to begin with you, Joe.
KLEIN: Well, I actually thought it was a cowardly speech. He proceeded not to be very specific at all about what he meant. You know, I think that you can contrast that speech with a truly great speech about race, which was made by Barack Obama last April in Philadelphia, where he laid out specifically the misapprehensions on all sides and spoke to the nation as if we were adults, which sometimes we are.
NORRIS: Michael Erik Dyson, why do I get the feeling that you don't agree with Joe Klein?
ERIK DYSON: Well, I think that Joe Klein is an extraordinarily elegant man. I think that, however, here we are miss served by the desire for a kind of specificity, when the broad landscape against which he pitched his argument, and the canvass upon which he drew a very compelling portrait of American race relations, is the very thing that we have to be honest about.
I think Joe Klein wants David and Goliath to be the same size. I think that we have to be honest about the disproportionate effect of the central operation of a dominant understanding of whiteness as the fact of American life. And from that, asking white Americans to think seriously, and self-critically and openly about that.
And then, yes, for African-American people, and Latinos, and Native Americans and all other people, to think self-critically about that issue. But there is no moral equivalency here, and they're not equal.
KLEIN: Now, Michael, what on earth did I say that led you to believe that I thought there was a moral equivalency here?
ERIK DYSON: Well, when you said that, you know, he asked people to be - he gave an adult speech that asked people on all sides to take a look at the issue of race, as if all hands on deck and all sides of the debate and conversation have had an equal effect upon how race has been lived in America.
KLEIN: I think that that's - I think you misinterpret me entirely. I think one of the great absences in our society is a really truthful telling of the white terrorism - almost an al-Qaida-like terrorism - that was visited upon black people after the Civil War, the so-called redemption period.
But at the same time, to say that the racial landscape of this country hasn't changed dramatically and that there aren't topics that have to be dealt with now, I think that's blindness of a sort, too.
NORRIS: If you contrast or compare the speech that Attorney General Eric Holder gave and the speech that Barack Obama gave - as candidate Barack Obama before he became President Barack Obama - does it appear that these two men have a different view of the role of race in America or the need to have discussions?
On one hand, you could look at the Obama speech and conclude that he's saying America needs to get past race. And that Holder, on the other hand, seems to be saying that America needs to deal with race and have a sort of more active engagement in talking about it, in order to get past it.
ERIK DYSON: Well, there's no question. I mean, this is what happened when black people had a conversation about whether Barack Obama was black enough. But I think that one of the implicit subtexts - to be redundant - of some of that argument was: Well, he doesn't share our history, doesn't know our pain, hasn't had our struggle in the same way because of the virtues of interracial alignment and affiliation that took him into other places that make him more palatable, and therefore, more interesting and quite frankly, more capable of carrying some of the interests we have, as African-American people, into the mainstream.
And I think that President Obama and Attorney General Holder ultimately would embrace on this point. But it is a different approach that I think yields different results in the immediate context.
KLEIN: What's upsetting to me in what Professor Dyson says is that there seems to be absolutely no acknowledgement of the incredible progress that's been made over the last 40 or 50 years. And there is no acknowledgement of the fact that our kids, at least those kids, you know, the majority of kids who go to college these days are living a very different racial experience than we did.
You can't just talk about the history. As I've said, we have to talk about the history of terror visited upon African-Americans in this country, but we also have to talk about where we are now and how we move forward.
ERIK DYSON: Can I respond?
KLEIN: We have - let me just finish.
ERIK DYSON: Mm-hmm.
KLEIN: We have to, you know, Barack Obama himself raised the question of whether his daughter should be, you know, eligible for affirmative action. Now, affirmative action is a bone in the throat of white working-class Americans who are right now really suffering economically. If you want to have the conversation, it has to be candid on all sides. It can't just be white people acknowledging the disgraceful history of terror visited upon blacks.
ERIK DYSON: Well, I absolutely agree with that. I guess I'm in the position you were in earlier. I'm asking you what in my particular presentation makes you feel that I'm absent of that? I don't know if you know any of my...
KLEIN: You didn't acknowledge it. You haven't said that things have gotten a lot better.
ERIK DYSON: But I haven't acknowledged - look, I haven't acknowledged a great deal of things because we're not talking about that now. What we're speaking about is the issue of race. I would be the first to acknowledge that there's been progress. But that usual reflex is in response to a demand for gratitude by many white Americans who feel that what we have not acknowledged is the sense of propriety and protocol and a kind of racial etiquette that black people should evince in the face of the enormous progress made.
I acknowledge that. I've written 16 books. I don't know if you're familiar with any of them, but I've dealt extensively and hopefully provocatively and hopefully somewhat lucidly about the complex and chaotic racial context within which we live and move and have our being.
KLEIN: Actually, my...
NORRIS: I'm going to actually...
ERIK DYSON: Let me finish. Let me finish because I want to finish my point.
NORRIS: I'm going to interject here because you both are...
ERIK DYSON: Can I - I just want to finish this point.
NORRIS: Actually, I'm going to interject here because we're into the landmines that I think Eric Holder points to when people try to talk about race - to what degree does guilt, or anger, or the need for gratitude or the need for apology stymie these kinds of conversations?
ERIK DYSON: Well, obviously, I think they play a role. And in answering your question, I just want to finish just a bit - answering what Mr. Klein suggested earlier. It is not that I lack familiarity with, or appreciation for or an acknowledgement of the enormous racial progress that has been made. I don't teach at a historically black college or university. I got a PhD at Princeton, not a local black institution.
ERIK DYSON: I would suggest that racial terror is not simply an ornament of the past.
I would suggest that when black people are subjected to retail profiling, or racial profiling or police brutality, where the arbitrary loss of life could happen at any moment, that there are forms of terror that persist. So, yes, there are real issues that need to be debated on all sides. But the playing field has to, I think, be cleared of some of these - the debris and the landmines - for us to have an open and honest discussion that I think Mr. Klein and I would love to encourage.
NORRIS: Thanks so much. Good to talk to both of you.
KLEIN: My pleasure.
ERIK DYSON: Thank you.
NORRIS: Michael Erik Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University. Joe Klein is a columnist with Time magazine. He's also the author of several books.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORRIS: For more of this conversation, including an honest discussion about voluntary segregation, go to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.