Abraham Lincoln once said that “If you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North,” and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.
Our Attorney General is right. We are a nation of cowards, fearing an honest discussion of race. But, unless he’s breaking utterly with rigorously observed convention, he’s dead wrong about what that discussion would look like. A newly open conversation about race and public policy is the last thing an Eric Holder wants.
In fact, Mr. Holder’s intent was to preempt just this possibility, which he reasonably fears as an unintended consequence of Barack Obama’s remarkable success. That success shatters the very assumption upon which it is most dependent–that America is inherently and uniquely racist, forever incomplete thereby. Holder finds himself tasked with performing the traditional February rite of reinforcing this assumption–as the first black attorney general serving the first black president. That’s one hell of a contradiction. It’s going to take a nation of millions to obscure it. Thus Attorney General Michael Scott’s suggestion that every day be a nation-wide Diversity Day:
…if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.
When I saw the scare-quote screen crawl (I shall start calling them scare-crawls) on a television across a room, “Atty General Holder Says US ‘Nation of Cowards’,” I assumed Mr. Holder had renounced the fear-mongering on behalf of “security” that has overtaken the Nation since 9/11. Something about the courage required by liberty and the cowardice required by tyranny. Perhaps he even had the nerve to suggest the terrorist threat has been exaggerated by those seeking power and wealth. I imagined myself defending him to you. This is, after all, only what he should be saying. But Holder wasn’t there to calm a panicked nation; he was there to panic a calm one:
If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted — and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about 50 years — the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely — and to do so now.
But this is nothing new. The remarkable thing about Wednesday’s speech was that the Attorney General broadened the mandate of the U.S. Department of Justice:
But we must do more, and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must — and will — lead the nation to the “new birth of freedom” so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.
Mr. Holder did not reveal any plans for how he will “lead the nation to [Lincoln’s] ‘new birth of freedom’ “; probably because he has none. Of course he may think we’re not ready for them. As if this immodest language isn’t disturbing enough, Holder combines it with an attempt not to merely prompt debate but to direct it:
I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of “them” and not “us.” There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self interest
This is a false accommodation. That there “can be” a “very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action”; is given, and not by the Attorney General. The implication is that current debate is heading for “illegitimate” territory, deliberately reinforcing white anxiety and black resentment that holds opposition to affirmative action as racist until proven otherwise.
To limit the debate is to control it. Holder, arguing like a good (or just fair) lawyer, needs to place the status quo he defends between two arbitrary “extreme” boundaries. Thus certain opinions are “simplistic” (of course he could be talking about the stubbornly crude logic of disparate impact and quotas–his call to frankness and depth included neither) or “extreme”, serving “narrow self-interest.”
It is a monologue Holder desires, alternating between narrow, meaningless poles toward a safely predetermined end, mouthed by a multitude distracted by false choices. The product of a collective, conditioned mind. But this much is obvious. What is more interesting is the unintentional but more revealing subtext, inaccessible to the author, incapacitated as he is by status, position and, appropriately enough, chauvinism. Holder’s speech revealed the potential conflicts facing a civil rights movement-turned-industry by Barack Obama’s stunning, rapid rise.
Those who most fear the reality of a “transformation” to a “post-racial” America are those who’ve most benefited from the decidedly racial nature of recent American politics–again, embarrassingly demonstrated with Obama’s success. The end game of affirmative action and discrimination-through-litigation is revealed as long overdue. The intent of the “conversation” about race, now more than ever, is to de-legitimize that challenge by declaring it unfit for conversation.
If we should start taking seriously the “post-racial” nature of Obama’s rise, we might start asking that it mean something beyond assigning a professional and political premium to certain individuals based on Obama’s myth of “race and inheritance.” But the obvious advantage that race played for the inauthentic son of slavery and segregation contradicts the myth. The notion of a white American jackboot forever on the neck of our culturally most powerful–black Americans–was questionable before Obama’s remarkable campaign and the ecstatic reception of his inauguration. Now it is farcical.
But it isn’t only that Barack Obama renders the white/black reparations dynamic absurd. The nascent Diversity State finds itself too soon and too totally triumphant. The bogey of white oppression threatens to become no longer plausible, and those groups assigned varying stature within the hierarchy of grievance are already eyeing one another uneasily.
The order now threatened by diversity is not pre– but post-civil rights. That minority became synonymous with oppressed, and “underrepresented” synonymous with denied, once only enhanced the power of the dominant minority, which extracted concessions from a still comfortable majority (that could still afford them and held an expectation of final conciliation). Smaller minority groups were content to follow the leader and accept a subordinate position. But what happens to that dynamic in a “post-racial” (“post-white”) America where the majority of individuals have a birthright claim against the white plurality and no sense of obligation toward a black population that is culturally dominant, politically favored and stubbornly lagging in professional and scholastic achievement?
It was therefore Holder’s purpose to preclude any challenges to black America’s position atop the hierarchy of grievance. Black equality is more than simple equality. Holder is here to defend the primacy of his faction as the vanguard of a revolution now triumphant:
In addition, the other major social movements of the latter half of the 20th century — feminism, the nation’s treatment of other minority groups, even the antiwar effort — were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality. Those other movements may have occurred in the absence of the civil rights struggle, but the fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment. Further, many of the tactics that were used by these other groups were developed in the civil rights movement.
By more false accommodation he allows that feminism, anti-war protests and other minority rights movements “may” have happened without the black civil rights movement–insinuating that they probably would have not. When Holder goes on to assert that black history is too little studied, and that “African American history is American history”, he declares that black history is more than American history, and greater than any other group’s American history.
The line is that we must continually revisit the sins of the past to understand our present. But in reality the better things get in the present, the more the self-interested must recourse to the dismal past, and the more the present has to be compared to an ideal of race relations that has never existed and may not be possible. There is no historical precedent for America, and nothing like her at present.
The regions from where America’s “disadvantaged minorities” originate cannot compare in wealth, opportunity or liberty. Resentment of this humiliating reality feeds into that encouraged by the dishonest class of political opportunists represented by Holder. The language of civil rights has become an affront, no longer condemnatory of practice but of a people and a nation: the long history of Western civil liberties is only begun with the American civil rights movement and invalidated by the interlude of American slavery. “Simplistic”, indeed.
We are in the late decadent phase of the civil rights movement. Declaring victory and demobilizing is not an option–this would involve the voluntary surrender of power, something that does not happen. Power is only surrendered under coercion or dissipated over time. The latter threat panics Holder and friends. Pretext must be found to justify power. Enemies, if they don’t appear, must be found. First, they are said to be hiding among us. Then, the enemy hides latent within each of us. Our eternal vigilance against “hateful” thought is a population regulating itself on behalf of power.
Holder’s acknowledgement of the problematic nature of diversity reveals an internal contradiction. By unmindful incrementalism we went from the noble ideals of equality and tolerance to their near-opposite: diversity as a goal in itself. Even now one cannot suggest publicly that a policy of ethnic diversifying is no more legitimate than one of ethnic cleansing, and no more fair. And while ethnic cleansing has a long, sordid history, ethnic diversifying has none at all.
A multiracial democratic republic worthy of the name will defend equality before the law against those who equate it with equality of results. It’s too late in the game to deny that fairness in hiring and education produces racial inequality–inequality that, as we’ve seen, does not necessarily benefit the majority. Ethnic diversity and democracy are thus at odds. This was once a given; now it is heresy. But it is heresy only because we think it’s awful that it should be so. Thus far we have chosen not to reconcile a diverse population to democracy, but to reconcile democracy to a diverse population. This may be inevitable. But, as the truth is always worth knowing and no subterfuge lasts forever, we would do well to call the Attorney General’s bluff.