Holder's 'Cowards' Comment Rekindles Race Debate Words spoken by U.S. Atty. General Eric Holder this week at a Black History program have rekindled a widespread debate on America's rocky history of race relations. Holder said that the U.S. is, in many ways, "a nation of cowards" when it comes to addressing and resolving prevalent tensions. A panel explores why race remains a subject many wish to ignore.
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Holder's 'Cowards' Comment Rekindles Race Debate

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Holder's 'Cowards' Comment Rekindles Race Debate

Holder's 'Cowards' Comment Rekindles Race Debate

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we get the buzz from the Barbershop guys about the latest controversies with A-Rod, Roland Burris and the New York Post. But first, we want to have a talk about a speech that got a lot of people talking this week. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at a Black History Month celebration at the Department of Justice. It was not the usual pabulum about honoring the past and looking forward to the future. Here's just some of what he said.

(Soundbite of speech, February 18, 2009)

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Department of Justice, Barack Obama Administration): Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an 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. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we - average Americans - simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.

MARTIN: Attorney General Holder's speech takes us back to the question of how we talk about issue of race even as this country has accomplished the milestone of electing its first black president. And the reaction to Mr. Holder's remarks, which have been reported around the world and called everything from courageous to needlessly provocative and insulting, also calls to mind a question we talked about recently on this program about how conversations about race can be more productive. So, we've called together a group of people who spent a lot of time thinking about how race plays out in society and how to talk about these issues. We're joined by Charles Ogletree; he's the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School; John Powell, he's executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University; and we're also joined by Angelo Falcon; he is the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. And I welcome you all. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Professor ANGELO FALCON (President, National Institute for Latino Policy; International and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Good morning.

Professor CHARLES J. OGLETREE JR. (Director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Harvard Law School): Good to be with you.

Professor JOHN A. POWELL (Executive Director, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity; Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University): Thanks for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, recognizing that I'm speaking with a group of intellectuals and the answer to most questions is going to be, it's more complicated than that, I'd like to start with a baseline and ask each of you if you agree with the attorney general's statement. Professor Ogletree?

Prof. OGLETREE: I think it's a little bit over the top, Michel. We have a president who is a product of a biracial marriage between a white woman from Kansas and an African from Kenya. This is the 20th anniversary of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin's birthday. It's the 100th anniversary of NAACP, where our stamp will be issued tomorrow, Saturday, honoring 12 civil-rights leaders. So, I think we're not a nation of cowards. I think there are some people who have not been as committed to racial justice and racial equality as they should be. But I would've thought of words other than coward, but it did spark one thing; it's the only black history speech - and I've given 20 already...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. OGLETREE: That is now in the national dialogue, and I hope people read Eric's entire speech, which actually is terrific.

MARTIN: OK. John Powell, what about you?

Prof. POWELL: Well, I agree basically with Charles. I think the content of this speech, actually, was very important and the call to really have a conversation and a constructive conversation is really important. I'm afraid that's getting lost because of the term or the phrase, "a nation of cowards." So, I think that was sort of unfortunate. You know, we had...

MARTIN: But I do want to ask - I do want to address the question of whether it was productive. But first, I would like to know just do you - you just don't agree with the substance...

Prof. POWELL: No, no, I agree that we need to have a very constructive conversation as a nation about race. I don't think the way to do it is to start off by calling the country cowards. So, that's what I mean, I think the substance of calling for a conversation, I think, is very appropriate. But I think the - to get people into a conversation constructively, you can't start off by calling them cowards.

MARTIN: And Angelo Falcon?

Prof. FALCON: Well, you know, as a Puerto Rican, trying to survive in this society...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FALCON: I welcome the remarks. One of the things I think is important is to put it in the context of where he was giving the speech and to whom he was speaking. And I think it reflects, if anything, an attempt to turn around an agency, the Department of Justice, that's been mangled ideologically in all sorts of ways and politicized over the last eight years and try to turn the thinking there around. And I think it's important to see that it was not some sort of general presentation that he made to the nation, but rather he was talking to his employees and telling them, guys, you know, for the last eight years, people have been telling you race is not important; in fact, you should do everything you can to delegitimize talking about racial inequality. I'm here to turn this thing. Around within that context, I applaud what he said.

MARTIN: And John Powell, back to you. You were on the program last week, and one of the things we were talking about is, how can one talk about these issues productively? I just want to play a short clip of what you said.

(Soundbite of NPR's Tell Me More, February 11, 2009)

Prof. POWELL: One of the ways that we need to think about race and talk about race is to think about what work our institutions and structures are doing to produce inclusion or exclusion.

MARTIN: And one of the criticisms of Eric Holder's speech from another African-American - for example, Melissa Harris-Lacewell; she's an associate professor of politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University - she's saying in essence, dialogue is fun, but what really matters is action. She writes, February's celebration of black history is important because it reminds us that America's bitter racial legacy is not about name-calling and hurt feelings; it's about structures of inequality codified in law and supported by government action. To that point, what would have been more productive, in your view, John Powell, as a way to address these issues?

Prof. POWELL: Well, a couple of things. First of all, he's - it's great that he's attorney general, and I have a lot respect for him, and he's - but he's talking to the whole nation. So, I think this - sort of, basically say, we're going to look very carefully at our laws; we're going to look very carefully at the our practices; we're going to look very carefully at things that actually distribute opportunity in America based on a racial line, that would no longer be tolerated in this country, and we ask all Americans to participate in that. I mean, I think that kind of conversation would have been received very differently than, first of all, just focusing on conversation, which I agree with the clip you just ran. But secondly, also I think we have to do it in a way that invites everyone into the conversation. And I still say that the use of the word "coward" really detracted from what was otherwise an important message.

MARTIN: Professor Falcon, what about you? You felt that it was an important charge to the department. But what about the point that he's speaking to a larger nation? And there are those who would argue that he left a lot of people out, that this isn't just kind of a dyad, a black white dyad, anymore, that this is a conversation that needs to be more inclusive. What's your take on that?

Prof. FALCON: Well, you know, I don't know. I mean, when you read the whole speech, 99.9 percent of it makes, you know, a lot of sense. And again, when you contextualize it in terms of who you're speaking to, who he was addressing, in terms of the Department of Justice employees, it is encouraging and I think it's very uplifting that he took this position. People are grabbing this, you know, "nation of cowards" notion, and certainly the right has picked up on it, Fox News and all that and that (unintelligible) that. But I think it's - I think he was basically telling - challenging people, because in - Americans to deal with the issue, and if you read the entire speech, he talks about (unintelligible) that there's been in this country racially and the opportunity that he's had.

So, this is not just a condemnation of America on racial issues, but really, I think he's trying to call people to understand the importance of the issue. And again, within the context of the Justice Department and the need to turn that agency around to deal with these issues - and these are basically structural issues of racial discrimination and dealing with also the political and economic structures - I think, to me, it's important that he got that message across to his employees, and hopefully he'll turn that agency around to deal with these historical problems that this country continues to refuse address frontally.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City, John Powell of Ohio State University, and Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School. We're talking about the attorney general's recent comments about race and whether we are, indeed, a nation of cowards when it comes to race. Professor Ogletree, you said that you thought that that particular phrase was overblown and not accurate, but that the rest of the speech, the rest of his charge, as it were, was helpful. Tell me why.

Prof. OGLETREE: I think that what he was trying to do was to continue the dialogue that was started, actually, 45 years ago by Dr. King, when he gave the speech on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C., about race, and it was updated on March 18th of last year, 2008, when Barack Obama gave his really famous and, I think, cherished speech on race. But I think what he could have done that would help the dialogue - the dialogue's going to go because the speech is out there and people will have to read it. He could have said we are nation of people of every race and ethnicity who are timid, reluctant or downright opposed to discussing race, and we have to move forward and discuss it. No matter how difficult it is, we have to have these difficult conversations.

The reality is that what Eric said now is making us discuss this, and I don't think it's just Republicans or conservatives who are upset; I've heard from a lot of African -Americans, saying, am I the coward? What have I failed to do? And it's an interesting phrase to trigger a dialogue, and I hope, as John Powell so eloquently say, this will trigger what John has been doing for decades, conversations in the multiracial, multigenerational communities to talk about these things step by step. We can't resolve this overnight, and I think what he's done is force us to talk about issues we have swept aside, and that in itself is a good thing.

MARTIN: But I have to have to ask the question, why do we have to? I mean, one of the points that he made in his speech is that, on the weekends we retreat to our corners, and you know, Sunday morning 11 o'clock, it's a cliche but true, still the most segregated hour of the week. Why we would have to? I mean, the law no longer put...

Prof. OGLETREE: Let me tell you what we have to.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Prof. OGLETREE: We have to because there so many of us, so many people, who think we've got a black president; the racial problem is gone. Even black intellectuals are saying we're post-racial era. We're not, when we see what happened with the New York Post magazine. We're not, when we see the young kid, Mr. Grant, shot by police in an Oakland subway. We're not at that place yet. And I think this conversation is important, because if we comfort ourselves because we made some successes, we're going to ignore the fact that the poorest of the poor, the bottom stick(ph) of our communities, are not rising, and they don't see it, that they don't have a job, that they don't have healthcare, their kids not getting an education.

We're not in a post-racial era, and I think that's why we have to have these discussions. And we are segregated on Sundays; we are. And that's as much as a black problem, a brown problem, a white problem. It's - we've decided to worship in an environment where we are almost ignorant of race or we ignore race. But we - my church is 90 percent black, and I'm glad to see that it's integrated, but the reality is that I go to other churches that are 90 percent white. We've got to address that issue that Eric dealt with, I think, very effectively in his speech.

MARTIN: John Powell, why do we have to? Why do we have to talk about this?

Prof. POWELL: Well, first of all, we talk about it anyway. You know, we talk about it through codes; we talk about it through symbols. So, when President Reagan talked about a welfare queen, everyone knew he was talking about race. When Nixon talked about law and order, everyone knew he talked about race. We talk about "them people" and personal responsibility, we're talking about race. We're talking about it in a subterranean way that's not helpful. And so - but not just talking about it; we live it. And the important thing is we - if we going to live it in a different way, when we talk about subprime mortgages and why these mortgages in foreclosures affect the whole country, affect the whole world, are really visited more heavily in the black and Latino community, we don't talk about that.

And so, these things actually affect our lives in profound ways. They affect our voting patterns; they affect where we go to schools; they affect where we go to hospitals. They're affecting the whole financial market. And for us to not to talk about it means they will continue to drive us. And so, in a sense, we have this incredible space - we're in a new space, with President Barack Obama, with Attorney General Holder. We're in a new space. We're in a space where Latinos are the largest non-Anglo population in the country. So, instead of running away from it - and if we run away from it, it will continue to catch up with us and will catch up with us on its own terms - we should face it. We've had other opportunities. After the Civil War, there was a brief period where things looked like they were really moving forward. There was a period during the civil-rights movement. So, we've had opportunities, and we haven't seized them. So, I hope we don't miss this opportunity and 20 years from now still be wondering why we haven't dealt with these issues.

MARTIN: And Professor Falcon, we have only couple minutes left, but Barack Obama made his famous, now famous, speech on race almost a year ago, with his speech in Philadelphia that got so much attention. Now, we have this new attorney general talking about race. What is the next conversation that you would like to have - see the country have?

Prof. FALCON: Well, you know, I think the conversation we're having right now is exactly the kind of thing that we need to deal with. I mean, a lot of this has to do with people figuring out how to frame the issue and how to present it in a way that's more palatable or it doesn't offend people or whatever. But the fact is, though, sometimes you can't do it. Every day you pick up the paper, there's an article about income inequality, racial inequalities in this country, whether it's health issues, whether it's housing. The fact is that the racial divide in this country is there; it's documented day to day; it's part of this reality. And yet, there are many people who are either cowards or just consciously don't want to address the issue.

So, the question is, how do we put it upfront there? And I think, to me, when this type of thing happens and it generates this kind of discussion, I think we need to be more supportive of the people who are raising these issues and understand that it took courage for him to say what he said, and I think that it has generated this discussion. And I see a very, very polarized America still. I don't think that there's any kind of middle ground here coming about because we have a black president now. You see the kind of racial - ugly racial discussions going on. You see that Pat Buchanan's there, interpreting this from his point of view and trying to put all the blame on the victim. And you know, so, this raises, you know, I think, a whole bunch of questions as part of that discussion that we need to have. And now, I think we're going to have a group of folks in the White House that are going to be, hopefully, dealing with these issues in a much more honest, straightforward way, in ways that will hopefully help us turn the corner in this country on these issues and not avoid or put them in a framework that really tries to, basically, just verbally make these problems disappear.

MARTIN: And finally, Professor Ogletree, we only have a couple of minutes left again. But if you're on the upside of the inequality, as it were, if you feel your life to be untroubled by the disparities that all of you have been talking about, why should you participate in this kind of dialogue that the attorney general is calling for?

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, it's very interesting. If I - when I walk out of this studio in Cambridge, I know that I'm going to be judged more by my color than by my character. That won't change until they - oh, that's a professor; that's not somebody else. So, I benefit from it because I'm in a continuum with different health-care concerns, different employment opportunities, different credit abilities. But here's what I think needs to be done, Michel. I think President Barack Obama needs to urge us to have a conversation about race. I think he needs to appoint Colin Powell, who made his decision to support Obama over McCain based on some comments by others about whether or not Barack Obama was a Muslim, and if he was, what's wrong with that?

Here is a man who I think, in the 21st century, a son of immigrants, went to City College of New York, the highest ranking African-American government who said, you know, I may be the first secretary of State, but I'm not the first qualified. I think Colin Powell can help us have this conversation in a way that we heal the nation and have these difficult conversations with a good result. And I want to be a part of it because I have a lot to learn, and I hope I have a lot to offer, as do all the people who are listening as well as those who are speaking today. So, we all benefit from it. We are not ever beyond that yet, and until we get beyond it, we all need to take seriously what we heard Eric Holder say and what the president said last year and do something about it.

MARTIN: And I - we need to leave it there. I need to apologize to our listeners. Normally at this time, we bring you our BackTalk segment, where we give you - we review the letters that you've sent us over the course of the week. We felt this conversation needed more time, so we will have our BackTalk segment on the Web at npr.org/tellmemore. And I want to thank all of our guests right now. Charles Ogletree is the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School; he joined us from Cambridge, Massachusetts; John Powell is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University; he joined us from member stations of WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida; and Angelo Falcon is the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy; he joined us from his office in New York. Gentlemen, I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Prof. FALCON: My pleasure.

Prof. POWELL: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: The Barbershop guys are next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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