Attorney General Eric Holder's speech to Justice Department employees urging the country to suck it up and have those hard conversations about race generated the predictable accusations from the pundit crowd, both conservative and liberal. Why is he still trying to make white people feel guilty?! We just elected his boss! The media reaction largely proves Holder's point. Rather than actually talking about the causes and consequences of our racial divide, the story has been that this speech has created the latest "controversy" for the Obama administration, starting with the AP article highlighting the "nation of cowards" quote. Apparently, there's only room for one black man at the highest levels of government taking the nation to task on race, and that man can do it once a year at most.
Smartly, Holder noted that our goal should not be to move beyond our racial past, and for the press to turn a blind eye to racial realities is the wrong way to go. He focused instead on raising the question of whether the nation's attitude toward its diversity will give us strength or take us down. I especially loved his note about how we manage to get along in the workplaces, but as soon as we can, we retreat to our racial corners on the weekends. That's because the diverse people of this country hold unequal power, which often dictates where and how we live.
The word 'coward' is a strong one, but the reality is that because we have such wildly different perspectives on why racial disparities exist, and because they continue to exist long after explicit racism has been outlawed, discussion of racial issues requires a high degree of tolerance for conflict, both intellectual and emotional. In my work reporting on the lives of everyday people and the institutions that shape their lives, I can see how our current rules and structures continue to produce disparities, even when no one intends that outcome. Understanding how the structures work - which has little to do with whether individuals intend to be racist - helps to lower the heat level significantly when these conversations do take place.
The flipside of cowardice is courage - something we all could use a little more of if we truly want to deal with our past and present racism, while we create a future that works for all of us.
Rinku Sen is the President of the Applied Research Center and the publisher of ColorLines, the magazine on race and politics. AND a member of the 2009 Progressive Women's Voices program. I am seriously glad that I got in when I did. No way I could have competed with her!