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Holder calls America 'nation of cowards' on race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2009 - Attorney General Eric Holder may end up wishing he had not delivered such a thoughtful, provocative Black History Month speech as the one he gave at the Justice Department Wednesday morning calling America a "nation of cowards" for not confronting the racial issue.

The nation's first black attorney general told Justice Department employees that America was less changed in the past half century than Americans fancy. And he said American history subordinated the story of African Americans.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," Holder said, "in things racial we have always been and 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 race."

Instead of giving a safe, pro forma, throwaway speech on Black History Month, Holder spoke about the races retreating into their "race-protected cocoons" and people escaping to their "electronically padlocked suburbs."

Holder said that, on the weekends and in too many ways, America is not that different from the nation of 50 years ago when his late sister-in-law had to be escorted by U.S. marshals past Gov. George Wallace and into school.

Holder said that the story of American history in the 19th and 20th centuries revolved around the struggle for freedom and equality for blacks. Other 20th century social movements - "feminism, the nation's treatment of other minority groups, even the anti-war effort - were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality," he said.

As a journalist, I know that the headline for this story is the "nation of cowards" phrase. But I almost hate to see that emphasis, knowing that the phrase could cause a backlash that might drown out Holder's important message.

In case anyone wonders whether we have entered the post-racial society, check out the incredible defense that the New York Post made of the racist cartoons that seems to liken President Obama to a chimpanzee.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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