(Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

A Look Back at Attorney General Eric Holder’s Real Talk on Racism

As Holder makes plans to leave the Obama administration, here are some of the statements that made the first black U.S. attorney general such a ‘lightning rod.’
Sep 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will leave his post, possibly before the end of the year, NPR reported Thursday morning. Holder’s tenure in the role is already one of the longest in history. When he leaves he’ll have spent more than five years as the Obama administration’s top justice official and will have been one of the president’s longest-serving Cabinet members.

But Holder, the first Africann America to serve as attorney general, has been a controversial figure, widely criticized both in and outside the Obama administration. He’s considered a “lightning rod” by many; some close to the Obama administration have suggested that in his speeches and off-the-cuff remarks, Holder says the things that Obama wants to say but can’t—about race, gay marriage, and law enforcement.

In light of his announcement—and the serious amounts of flak Holder has gotten over his charged public statements (the administration has banned him from appearing on Sunday political talk shows)—we’ve collected some choice moments of Holder “real talk.” Regardless of whether you agree, there’s no denying that he says things politicians don’t normally say under the spotlight, especially if they want to stay there.

“This is a sad reality”

In 2013, Holder gave a speech at the NAACP’s national convention. He discussed the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American 17-year-old who was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in light of his own experiences with racial profiling.

“Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down, to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down,” Holder told the audience.

“But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.”

Later, Obama echoed Holder’s speech when he said that Trayvon “could have been my son.”

“I hadn’t been speeding”

When unrest and protests erupted after Michael Brown, an unarmed African American 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in July, Holder went to Ferguson and met with residents. Again, he reflected on his experiences with police profiling as a young man.

“As a college student, I was pulled over twice on the New Jersey Turnpike and my car was searched—even though I was sure I hadn’t been speeding,” he told a group of college students in Ferguson on Aug. 20.

“I thought of them again some time after that, when a police officer stopped and questioned me in Washington while I was running to catch a movie—even though I happened to be a federal prosecutor at the time.”

He later said that he identified with Ferguson’s mistrust of police. Michael Brown’s mother told Anderson Cooper that after talking with Holder, she felt the investigation into her son’s death would be “fair and thorough.”

“There’s a certain racial component”

On This Week With George Stephanopoulos in July, Holder addressed critics who claimed Obama should be impeached. During the interview, he suggested that some popular nationalist rhetoric was rooted in racism.

“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,” Holder said.

“There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me [and] directed at the president.”

“Segregation has reoccurred”

During a commencement address in May at Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, Holder took aim at allegedly “race-neutral policies” that “impede equal opportunity in fact, if not in form.”

“In too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred—including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers,” he said.

“We are now a nation of cowards”

This was the speech that started it all. Arguably the most controversial public statements the attorney general made were some of his earliest.

In 2009, at a Department of Justice Black History Month event, Holder told DOJ employees, "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.”

“On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago.”

Conservative pundits called the speech “insensitive” and “insulting,” and though he has been hounded for it ever since, Holder defended the remark five years later to ABC News, saying, “I wouldn’t walk away from that speech.”