After being confirmed as the nation’s first African American U.S. attorney general, Eric H. Holder, Jr. wasted little time putting everyone on notice that he would not tip-toe around the volatile subject of race.
“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 in a speech at the Justice Department.
There was the predictable uproar on the right and President Obama, while not repudiating his new appointee, told the New York Times, “I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language.”
And that’s precisely the point. Holder was courageous in directly taking on the issue of race while Obama, in the words of Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, “runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.”
Holder’s deeds, not his words, are what made him such an exceptional attorney general.
He fought for criminal-justice reform, saying the overrepresentation of Blacks in the criminal justice system “isn’t just unacceptable; it’s shameful.” He said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
He favored a 2010 law that eliminated the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. And he led a successful effort to reduce prison sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
Arguably his most lasting imprint was in the area of voting rights. When the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Holder said the ruling could not be used for the wholesale disenfranchisement of people of color. He sued Texas over its voter ID law and challenged North Carolina in court over its law to restrict early voting and same-day registration.
Holder further revitalized a sector of the Democratic Party by supporting same-sex marriage and his refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which holds that marriage is strictly between a woman and a man.
There were some disappointments as well.
He supported the FBI’s right to track U.S. citizens without obtaining a warrant. He also approved of the National Security Agency’s authority to collect millions of phone records of Americans not accused of any crime
In his zeal to plug national security leaks, the Justice Department obtained the phone records of journalists performing their jobs. Last year, Holder backtracked, promising that the Justice Department “will not prosecute any reporter doing his or her job.”
Republicans highlighted the failure of Operation Fast and Furious, an Arizona-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) project to track weapons purchased by Mexican drug cartels. Not only did ATF fail to account for more than 1,000 firearms that had been purchased by straw buyers, two of the missing weapons were linked to the killing of Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
When Holder, citing executive privilege, refused to turn over certain Fast and Furious records to Congress, the House held him in contempt, the first for a sitting cabinet member.
Both conservatives and liberals criticized Holder for his failure to prosecute individuals connected to the Wall Street financial crisis in 2008. While some firms deemed “too big to fail” were subjected to record fines, no Wall Street executives were prosecuted. They were derisively labeled “too big to jail.”
Most African Americans will remember the bold stances and actions Holder took following killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida and the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. by Darren Wilson, a White police officer, in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot at least six times.
Her criticized Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, telling NAACP delegates, “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.” Holder visited Ferguson, sharing his own personal experiences of being profiled by police. Following his visit to Ferguson, Holder ordered a federal civil rights investigation of the predominantly White police department. He said the investigation would determine whether Ferguson officers had “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.”
In a speech earlier this month at New York University, Holder said that as a former U.S. attorney and the brother of a longtime police officer, he has nothing but respect for police officers. But he said he is also an African American man “who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such action was not warranted.” Consequently, he said, “I also carry with me the mistrust that some citizens harbor for those who wear the badge.”
Under Holder, the Justice Department has initiated twice as many police reviews for possible constitutional violations than any other attorney general. At least 34 other departments are under federal investigation for possible civil rights violations.
Conservatives have pilloried Holder for being so aggressive on civil rights. But he has not backed down for one simple reason – he is no coward.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.