Obama and race: why Eric Holder's words stirred such anger

Attorney General Eric Holder said Sunday that, for some critics of the Obama administration, 'there’s a racial animus.' The angry response from the right could point to the need for more understanding on both sides.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder participates in a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington Monday. He suggested there was a racial element to some criticism of the Obama administration in comments to ABC News Sunday.

Is racial animosity behind some political criticism of the Obama administration? That’s what Attorney General Eric Holder said on Sunday. The exact phrase he used was “racial animus,” which he said motivates some of his and Obama’s political opponents.

“There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me, directed at the president,” Attorney General Holder told ABC. “You know, people talking about taking their country back.... There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.”

Much of the opposition to President Obama’s policies is ideological, Holder added. He said that 50 years after Freedom Summer, when civil rights activists moved into the South to try and register African-Americans to vote, the US has made “lots of progress” on issues of race. But there is still some distance to travel on the issue, said the attorney general.

“I’m very optimistic this country will get there ... [but] I think we are still a nation that is too afraid to confront racial issues,” said Holder.

This has not gone down well with some on the right. At the National Review Hans A. von Spakovsky writes that Holder’s latest claim shows that the attorney general is “disconnected from reality.”

Holder has selectively enforced civil rights laws on a racial basis, as when he dropped a case the Justice Department had already won against the New Black Panther Party for intimidating voters in front of a Philadelphia polling place in 2008, according to von Spakovsky.

“Holder views the world through a racial prism that distorts his judgment,” he writes.

At the right-leaning "Hot Air!" Noah Rothman used even tougher language. The Obama administration long ago perfected the art of cultivating the sense among its defenders that lingering racism inspires most of its critics, according to Mr. Rothman. If the US was still so racially sensitive, why did it reelect an African-American president?

Conservatives who say they want to “take their country back” aren’t using coded racial phrases – they think Obama has overstepped is constitutional authority, Rothman writes.

“No one is listening to this nonsense beyond the cult of true believers. Those for who racism is a religion – ubiquitous and unfalsifiable – nod in agreement at Holder’s self-aggrandizement. All others roll their eyes,” writes Rothman.

Hmm, that’s a pretty angry reaction, isn’t it? There’s a reason for that, according to Emory University School of Law professor Dorothy Brown. It’s unusual for whites to hear what black men think about race. They’re surprised when they do.

Furthermore, Holder’s words were fairly mild, writes Professor Brown at CNN. He said “some” of the opposition to Obama is caused by race, but it’s not a main driver. But critics are reacting as if Holder said that racism is the main obstacle facing Obama’s efforts.

“It is as if when certain whites hear the word race (or a derivative) as the explanation for any part of an event, they go situationally deaf,” writes Brown.

Whites and blacks have different views about many things, she continues. Asked in a recent Gallup poll whether the US justice system is biased against blacks, 69 percent of whites said “no.” Sixty-eight percent of blacks said “yes.”

By and large, when talking about race in the US, whites talk to other whites, and blacks talk to other blacks, writes Brown. This one of the lessons from the uproar over Holder’s words is that the races should talk more to each other.

“As I tell my students when I teach about race and the law, I note that important breakthroughs on race can only come when you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t look like you and doesn’t think like you,” she writes.

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