It's been a pretty difficult year for the American public and race. With multiple, high-profile incidents of police violence against unarmed people of color galvanizing a nationwide protest movement, and sparking an equally forceful, ugly backlash, it seems safe to say that 2014 will be remembered as a year when American societies' fissures and failings on race were laid painfully bare. In fact, no less than the Attorney General of the United States agrees — Eric Holder says America's "failed" on race and policing, in an interview conducted with MSNBC host Joy Reid.
It's not the first time Holder has spoken frankly about the nation's reluctance or outright unwillingness to tackle racism head-on. He generated a lot of praise and criticism alike for saying, in a speech on Black History Month back in 2009, that "in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."
Speaking to Reid, with his tenure as Attorney General approaching its end — he's already announced his resignation, effective whenever the Obama administration successfully appoints and gets Congressional approval for a replacement — his outlook seems direr still. Reid asked Holder how black and brown Americans should feel about the state of policing of people of color, considering not just of the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford, but the fact that this problem isn't new. Specifically, she cited the NYPD shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, an infamous and oft-criticized case.
In a similar case in New York, Amadou Diallo, a young West African immigrant who was shot in the vestibule of his own apartment building. What does it say that we essentially are in the same exact place now, so many years later?
Holder's reply was simple, straightforward, and ultimately, truly heartbreaking.
It means that we, as a nation, have failed. It's as simple as that. We have failed. ... And it's why we have to seize this opportunity that we now have. We have a moment in time that we can, perhaps, come up with some meaningful change. It's what I'm committed to doing, even in the limited time I have left as attorney general. And I'll certainly continue to do it after I leave office.
Holder continued that "we also have to look at the way in which police officers are judged. And if there is, in fact, a problem there, that is something that we need to address."
This echoes a familiar and crucial question that's emerged over the last several weeks — are police officers who kill citizens judged fairly under the law? The troika of non-indictments in the Brown, Garner, and Crawford cases are suggestive – based on data from 2010, only 11 out of 162,000 grand juries failed to indict. Of course, as Holder pointed out all those years ago, American society sometimes has a hard time even raising the issue of race, but he still seems to think that progress can be made.
... as a nation, we are too reluctant to talk about racial things. It's something that's painful. It's difficult, given the history of this nation. And the easier thing to do is to try to figure out a way in which you just kind of deal with the issue that's before you and then really not deal with the underlying concerns.So yeah, we've not done all that we can. I'm hopeful that, at this time, with this president, that we can make progress in ways that we have not in the past.
You can read the full text of Holder's interview at New York Magazine, and it's definitely worth your time — at the end of a long, fraught six-year tenure at the top of the Justice Department, it's clear that Holder's passion on these issues hasn't dulled a bit.
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