When rumors swirled in February that Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, planned to resign by the end of the year, it was clear that President Obama might be losing more than just his top justice official. Through six years of Obama's presidency, Holder has been not only a close confidant, but someone to be counted on, someone who has stepped to the plate when the president could not. As Obama has grown into office, he has been decidedly less outspoken on matters of race in America. The attorney general has not. Holder, it's become clear, is Obama's unofficial spokesman.
In 2009 when Holder was appointed attorney general he became the first black man to hold the seat. He vowed that things would be different, and his track record thus far has proven as much. He's fought to give same-sex couples equal rights under the federal legal system, supported comprehensive immigration reform, and has continued to heavily advocate and enforce federal voting rights laws.
But even before all of this, Holder made it clear that his job would be to wade through America's muddied waters and confront racial inequalities head on. Two weeks into his tenure, he gave a speech at the Department of Justice's African American History Month program.
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. 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. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, 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. 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.
We were "a nation of cowards" when it came to discussing race in our own backyard, and Holder promised to light a new path forward.
The rumors of his stepping down, it turned out, were short-lived, and Holder later released a statement, saying, "I still have things I want to do... I'm going to be [here] for a while."
On August 9, as the afternoon sun stirred above Ferguson's Canfield Green Apartments, Michael Brown was fatally shot. Hands raised, he asked that his life not be taken today, that he be granted some fraction of humanity. He wanted Officer Darren Wilson to see him in that moment, to—if nothing else—acknowledge his being for what it was: imperfect but worthy of life. Six shots rang out, cracking the still Missouri heat, and Brown's body collapsed to the concrete below, where it would lay for hours.
On August 14—after days of protests in Ferguson, where police clashed with civilians upset over Brown's killing and chants of "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" became a national headline—Obama addressed the nation.
"Second," Obama began, "I want to address something that has been in the news the last couple of days—the situation in Ferguson, Missouri."
It was an interesting choice of words for a president whose candidacy, and whose early years in office, was marked by soul-stirring oratory. Because Obama, more than any president before him, should know what has happened in Ferguson, and what is happening across the nation, is more than something.
A black boy is dead. A community, perhaps irrevocably, further divided. The nation, again, finds itself at a crossroads. (Or, opens its eyes on the crossroads it's spent decades standing at.)
This, a youthful Illinois senator might have said, is a time when we should subscribe to the politics of hope. A time where bridging the racial divide in America's heartland, and clinging to the belief that things can and will be better, is possible. Instead, once fiery declarations of "unity" and "yes we can" were replaced with sunken-eyed statements about "emotions" being "raw right now" and how we must bring "peace and calm" to Ferguson.
Days later, as conflict continued to surge, Obama again addressed the public about growing discord. He ended with this:
In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. Through initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, I'm personally committed to changing both perception and reality. And already we're making some significant progress as people of goodwill of all races are ready to chip in. But that requires that we build and not tear down. And that requires we listen and not just shout. That's how we're going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. We're going to have to hold tight to those values in the days ahead.
The speech was four minutes long, and Obama—who previously said "we can't forget how this started"—mentioned Brown's name twice. His remarks were measured and unconvincing at best, and lacked the passionate rhetoric much of America, particularly the black community that helped him reach office, hoped to hear.
It is no wonder, then, that Obama's statements on Ferguson have left many in disbelief. Where is the man we elected? Where is the man who, in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's murder, said "[he] could have been me 35 years ago," the man who, in 2008, said "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now…[and] a part of our union that we have yet to perfect"? Where is the man who once remarked:
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
Where is that man?
Since Brown was killed on August 9, family, residents, and concerned citizens have mainly asked for two things: that Officer Wilson be brought to justice, and that Obama visit Ferguson to help mitigate boiling tensions.
Neither, for now, has happened. Instead, Holder has stepped in and become the Emblem of Racial Justice many wished Obama would be.
Yesterday, Holder arrived in Ferguson and met with local police, the FBI, DOJ personnel, community leaders, and reporters. His editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch promised that "the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn—in a fair and thorough manner—exactly what happened." Holder continued:
Over the years, we have made significant progress in ensuring that this is the case. But progress is not an endpoint; it is a measure of effort and of commitment. Constructive dialogue should continue — but it must also be converted into concrete action. And it is painfully clear, in cities and circumstances across our great nation, that more progress, more dialogue, and more action is needed.
This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent. And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding — and robust action — aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve. Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community.
History is watching, and Holder's words and actions have resounded much louder than Obama's tepid statements thus far. I do get it, though. I understand that the president has to take a tactical approach to Brown's death and the events transpiring in Ferguson, that he has two years left on his presidency and wants to accomplish a great deal, for which he will need the help of both Democrats and Republicans.
Yet I can't help but wonder: Here is a man who established his career by helping communities like Ferguson, a man who has been anything but conventional throughout his presidency, and, above all, a man who champions hope. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, and so many other black men and women just like them, are much bigger than Washington politics. I want to believe Obama knows so.
Ferguson could very well haunt Obama's presidency after he leaves office in 2016. Perception, after all, is everything. It is likely that he and Holder have had dozens of private discussions about Ferguson, and for all we know the president is more troubled by what has taken place than he puts on. But his actions continue to say, and mean, little in the public eye. The killing of Michael Brown, the protests, the nearly two-week long conflict, the nation's growing mistrust in law enforcement, the increasing racial friction: these are matters too important to the communities that uphold Obama for him to just have Holder speak and move on his behalf.
Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and senior advisor to Obama, has said that he and Holder believe in reshaping the justice system—a "shared vision" she called it. But such a belief must entail talking about and approaching racial injustices in new ways. Sometimes, too, this entails just showing up to hear out community members who are disproportionately affected by our justice system, listening to their concerns, and conveying that, just by being there, you too believe things can change.
As Holder met with residents Wednesday, he remarked to a small crowd, "Why would I be anywhere but right here and right now?"
[Photo via AP]