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Friday, October 28, 2016

WASHINGTON — When he announced his leave-taking last week, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of Robert F. Kennedy as his inspiration for believing that the Justice Department “can and must always be a force for that which is right.”

There are many reasons why our nation’s first African-American attorney general might see Kennedy as his guide, but this one may be the most important: If ever a public figure was exempt from Holder’s much contested depiction of our country as a “nation of cowards” on race, it was RFK, a man who was in constant struggle with his demons and his conscience.

Few white men were as searing as Kennedy in describing how the world looked to a young black man in the late 1960s. “He is told that the Negro is making progress,” Kennedy wrote, following the racial etiquette of his time. “But what does that mean to him? He cannot experience the progress of others, nor should we seriously expect him to feel grateful because he is no longer a slave, or because he can vote or eat at some lunch counters.”

“How overwhelming must be the frustration of this young man — this young American,” Kennedy continued, “who, desperately wanting to believe and half believing, finds himself locked in the slums, his education second-rate, unable to get a job, confronted by the open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world, and seemingly powerless to change his condition or shape his future.”

Yet Kennedy was never one to let individuals escape responsibility for their own fates. So he also spoke of others who would tell this young black man “to work his way up, as other minorities have done; and so he must. For he knows, and we know, that only by his efforts and his own labor will the Negro come to full equality.”

Holder and his friend President Obama have lived both halves of Kennedy’s parable. Like social reformers in every time, they strived to balance their own determination to succeed with their obligations to justice. Doing this is never easy. It can’t be.

Kennedy was not alone among Americans in being tormented by how much racism has scarred our national story. That’s why I was one of many who bristled back in 2009 when Holder called us all cowards. For all our flaws, few nations have faced up to a history of racial subjugation as regularly and comprehensively as we have. And Holder and Obama have both testified to our progress.

Yet rereading Kennedy is to understand why Holder spoke as he did. That the young man Kennedy described is still so present and recognizable tells us that complacency remains a subtle but corrosive sin. One of Holder’s finest hours as attorney general was his visit to Ferguson, MO, after the killing of Michael Brown. Many young black men still fear they will be shot, a sign that the “open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world” have not gone away. We have moved forward, yet we still must overcome.

Holder leaves two big legacies in this area from which his successors must not turn away. In the face of a regressive Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, he has found other ways to press against renewed efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. And it is a beacon of hope that sentencing reform and over-incarceration, central Holder concerns, are matters now engaging conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike.

The New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo captured the irony of Holder’s tenure with the observation that his time as attorney general “is unique in that his biggest supporters are also among his loudest critics.” Many progressives have been troubled by his record on civil liberties in the battle against terrorism, his aggressive pursuit of journalists’ emails and phone records in leak investigations, and his reluctance to prosecute individual Wall Street malefactors.

That these issues will long be debated is a reminder that Holder was first a lawyer and public servant, most of whose work had nothing to do with race. That he singled out Kennedy as his hero shows that none of us need be imprisoned by race. That Holder cajoled and provoked us on the need “to confront our racial past, and our racial present” is itself an achievement that transcends the color line.

Kennedy, who spoke of those who braved “the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society,” would understand the risks that Holder ran.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

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  • Dominick Vila

    Racial inequality is just one of the many issues that Eric Holder addressed during his tenure. As infuriating and that issue is to most Republicans, his insistence on trying alleged terrorists in U.S. Courts, in accordance with U.S. and international law, may have been the most offensive to his detractors.
    There are parallels between what Bobbie Kennedy pursued and what Eric Holder did, and that is why both will go down in history and infamous attorney generals for some, and as heroes for many.

    • His total disregard for the law and the constitution, his constant use of race any chance he got. What a great AG. If only Himmler was still alive to replace him. Now there would be an AG that would serve this regime as the liberals want.

      • Dominick Vila

        “If only Himmler was still alive to replace him” Wow, thank you for confirming something that should have been obvious to everyone. Which segments of our population should, in your opinion, wear symbols on their lapels and be sent to crematoriums?

        • joe schmo

          Well…..if things don’t change….and that overly printed dollar gets devaluated by Russia and China working in cahoots, if our country refuses to more more toward the middle and away from Communism, if we continue to feel this divide and distaste towards each other (which is very noticeable by the way), then you can surely kiss our American ass goodbye.

          • Dominick Vila

            There is no doubt that we are divided politically, and that civil dialogue and pragmatic discussions designed to find middle ground are conspicuous by their absence, but make no mistake, when our country is threatened or attacked, we all react as one.
            We are not moving, philosophically speaking, towards anything that remotely resembles communism. We are, and will remain, the core of capitalism in the world.
            The fact that the values, goals and expectations embraced by most members of our society are changing, is a sign of progress in the pursuit of a higher standard of living. Communism, and even socialism as conceived by Marx and Engels, are concepts rejected by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Don’t confuse supporting social programs such as SS, MEDICARE, or the ACA, with nationalization of industry, appropriation of property, collectivism, and other such approaches, which instead of improving quality of life inevitably produce mediocrity, and often misery.

      • Sand_Cat

        Look, if you think Holder is so evil, let’s hear the specifics, not the right-wing, non-specific, usually grossly exaggerated if true at all, talking points.
        If you want respect and a civil hearing, don’t compare him to Himmler: many of us consider the current GOP’s leaders too close to the Nazis for comfort, but none of us would seriously suggest that they are there yet. Whatever faults Holder may or may not have, he’s still got a ways to go to catch up with Ted Cruz and some of the other GOP luminaries.

        • Holder is an outright racist.

      • DAVE in VA

        Kanndeb, Do you think that Erick Holder is going to investigate the beheading of the women in Oklahoma?
        I find it a little bit funny and at the same time very sad that no leftwing news outlets are talking about the act of terrorism on our soil. I also like the fact that a good guy with a gun stopped am Islamic terrorist with a knife from beheading a second innocent women.

        • joe schmo

          Certainly not! Why should any mere white American be of any interest to him. His bigotry and racial bias has been a huge part of what he represented.

          Oh, and in case you haven’t heard. some Leftwing media outlets even claim that the dude that beheaded his coworker didn’t do anything wrong. Just another case of the criminal having all the rights.

          I suggest that we move ALL Muslims out of the Country and lock those borders up tight. Not only will it cure the Cartel problem but we will have few terrorist issues on our soil. It’s just makes too much sense for Democrats to understand……

          • DAVE in VA

            They are calling it Workplace violence.Nothing to see here folks move along now.

        • Of course not. He only gets involved in cases that includes someone black. We are going to have much more of this with our open border, and letting anyone that wants to walk into our country. This will only help the regime with their agenda.

          • DAVE in VA

            You would think that with the recent police officer who was shot in Ferguson on Saturday. That the Injustice department would be gasing up the jet to head on down to get to the bottom of the situation. That won’t happen because the officer was white. George Zimmerman is happy to hear of Erick Holder is quitting maybe his investigation will finally come to a close.

        • 1standlastword

          It’s all about the “spin” Dave. The left media is diluting this event as chiefly motivated by a disgruntled employee and tagged on the end is “he is a recent convert to Islam and praised Allah as he severed the head of one woman and slashed another.”

          There is the debate resonating across the country about the IS influence and home grown terror when “they try to return home” …return home???

          I guess this event doesn’t fit the “when they return try to home” narrative. That doesn’t surprise me since almost all of our narrative today (liberal and conservative) are so air tight and inflexible that by the time the media gets around to connecting the dots we have a near epidemic.

  • charles king

    Like I have said before Critical Thinking can solve our racial problems very easy. The President Obama and AG Holder has reminded the People about their Democracy Which? has been slipping away from the people. Monies, Plutocracts, Republicans and Democracts representives Who? NOT doing their job in informing the public about Where? has our Democracy gone. The VOTE is still Supreme Do Not let these Jive-ass politicians destroy your Country. Racial inequality is no problem to anybody because there is nothing that a human being can’t Do so do some critical thinking and be reasonable with yourself cause once you understand the problem then you have a shot at solving it. Just kepp an eye-open for those Greedy Capitalistic Pigs, non-tax payer Corporations, Commissioners and any other anti-big government peons cause the Feds are the onlyones Who? has your back with your Democracy most States are governing with Plutocracy. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

  • The lucky one

    ““the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society,” would understand the risks that Holder ran. Holder knew he could count on the banksters he served before, during and I’m sure will continue to do after leaving office to have his back. Racism is alive and well in the USA but it’s not those who serve as the rich elite’s lackeys like Holder does that feel its sting.

  • Whatmeworry

    He will go down in History in a dead tie with Janet Reno as the worst AG in US history

    • Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter

      really? hmm

  • 1standlastword

    “Holder was first a lawyer and public servant, most of whose work had nothing to do with race…” (see above)
    Holder’s portfolio as a hero of civil rights is no more than philosophical as his term and history avails. He went to Ferguson to mourn and show his sympathy and then tendered his resignation leaving the family and the people wondering if they can rely on his influence as AG to effect a change in the culture of prejudicial law enforcement practices.

    The Kennedy’s lost their lives because they were courageous enough to get in the faces of people who could and did kill them: Likewise Martin Luther King.

    Holder is NO hero!

    But he is an opportunist and he stands as an example that a black man can rise to the level of cream in America.

    If Holder had the courage of the Kennedys and King he would have handle the two most devastating events in American history more energetically…more effectively.

    He would have sacrificed himself for his boss thus providing him with more cover and likely saving his popularity and tarnishing those that continued to come back AGAIN AND AGAIN to defame and tarnish his boss.

    I have only one sincere platitude for Mr. Holder and that is he has demonstrated that with hard work, commitment and determination a black man can be successful. I hope his legacy will inspire others and that they will have more courage “to do that which is right”