Don’t blame Eric Holder. The first African American to hold the position of U.S. Attorney General, Holder created controversy when he called the United States a “nation of cowards” for not candidly addressing racial issues.
He has truth as his defense.
A racist cartoon published that same day in the New York Post helped to substantiate it.
"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 said on Feb. 18, at a black history month celebration at the Justice Department. “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.”
Holder also lamented that although the nation has done a reasonably good job of bringing diversity to the workplace, and people socialize fairly well regardless of race, the U.S. remains a segregated nation on Saturday and Sunday. "One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation,” he said.
The infamous New York Post cartoon played off that experience in the ugliest way. The cartoon depicted a white police officer shooting of a chimpanzee. As two white police officers, one with a smoking gun, observed the ape's bloody and bullet-ridden corpse, one of the officers said, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
The cartoon, ostensibly a spoof on the recent shooting of a chimpanzee, is no laughing matter. Many people concluded that the chimp was supposed to be President Obama. A photo of the president signing the stimulus bill was on the preceding page.
For black Americans, the symbolism was unmistakable. After all, throughout our history, black people have been depicted in cartoons as monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. In a nation with a sordid history of lynching and police brutality, and the assassination of presidents and black leaders, the cartoon seemed to incite violence.
Now the owner of the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch, has finally apologized, sort of, for running the cartoon.
“Last week, we made a mistake,” he said. “We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.”
But Murdoch said that the racism was in the eye of the beholder, not the cartoonist. “I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation,” he said. “It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such.”
No, the unfortunate thing was not the interpretation but the cartoon itself.
That the cartoonist, and now Murdoch himself, can plead ignorant of its racist connotations shows that Attorney General Holder knew what he was talking about.
How refreshing it is now to have a leader in the Justice Department who understands this country's troubling legacy, and is not afraid to bluntly make us face it.
Although America now has its first black president, we cannot wave a magic wand and pretend that all of the social inequities have disappeared.
Holder was brave enough to call us out, collectively as a nation, on our silence about race. Hopefully the rest of us will muster the courage to take his lead and speak out, with honesty, whenever we can.