Noth­ing cow­ardly about good man­ners

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - Opin­ion by Wes­ley Pru­den

Some nice white folks ought to in­vite Eric Holder home to sup­per. He’s feel­ing ne­glected, though it’s not quite clear why he would want to nib­ble on Rus­sian caviar and sip French cham­pagne, the rou­tine fare of white folks, with “cow­ards.”

The new at­tor­ney gen­eral de­liv­ered an as­ton­ish­ing speech at the Jus­tice Depart­ment last week to get a lot off his chest. Who knew this man, who lives in a mil­lion-dol­lar man­sion, was so mis­er­able?

“Though this na­tion has proudly thought of it­self as an eth­nic melt­ing pot,” he said, “in things racial, we have al­ways been and con­tinue to be, in too many ways, es­sen­tially a na­tion of cow­ards.” Amer­i­cans, he said, “sim­ply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

This is break­ing news for most of us. Black and white, we don’t talk about any­thing else.

But Mr. Holder wants to ho­mog­e­nize us, like sweet milk. He sees the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s mis­sion as to com­plete the work of Abra­ham Lin­coln: “We in this room 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.”

That’s pretty heavy lift­ing for a mere at­tor­ney gen­eral, heavy lift­ing re­garded be­fore now as the work of mere pres­i­dents. What does he mean? Must Michael Steele take a Klans­man to lunch to avoid in­dict­ment? Does Rush Lim­baugh have to join the con­gre­ga­tion of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?

Most of the at­ten­tion given to his speech — it even mer­ited a cou­ple of ob­scure para­graphs on an in­side page of The Wash­ing­ton Post — con­cen­trates on Mr. Holder’s vile de­scrip­tion of Amer­i­cans as “cow­ards,” but a read­ing of the tran­script re­veals con­sid­er­ably more. He con­cedes some good things — the dis­man­tling of seg­re­ga­tion, the elec­tion of a black pres­i­dent by an over­whelm­ingly white elec­torate (he didn’t men­tion two black Repub­li­can sec­re­taries of state ap­pointed by a white South­ern pres­i­dent).

He grudg­ingly con­cedes that the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can work­place has be­come one of easy ca­ma­raderie, of un­forced min­gling at lunchtime, where “we so­cial­ize with one an­other fairly well, ir­re­spec­tive of race.” But by in­stinct and learned be­hav­ior Ameri- cans un­der­stand that “cer­tain sub­jects are off lim­its and to ex­plore them risks at best em­bar­rass­ment and at worst the ques­tion­ing of one’s char­ac­ter.”

What Mr. Holder imag­ines is cow­ardly is ac­tu­ally good man­ners. If two friends, one black and one white, are lunch­ing ami­ably to­gether why would ei­ther one of them want to spoil the oc­ca­sion by launch­ing into a blub­bery con­fes­sion or a scold­ing lec­ture on race of the sort that Mr. Holder in­flicts on cap­tive audiences at the Jus­tice Depart­ment? Is he scold­ing white folks for past and present sins, or re­buk­ing the likes of Jesse and Al for preach­ing in­tol­er­ance of whites? He should be too busy boil­ing wa­ter at “the new birth of free­dom” to be hec­tor­ing help­less em­ploy­ees to ap­plaud in the ap­pro­pri­ate places.

This “new birth of free­dom” threat­ens to spoil ev­ery­body’s week­ends: “On Satur­days and Sun­days, Amer­ica in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, dif­fer sig­nif­i­cantly from the coun­try that ex­isted 50 years ago.” This sounds sus­pi­ciously like the com­plaint that “11 o’clock on Sun­day morn­ing is the most seg­re­gated hour of the week.”

The so­lu­tion, pre­sum­ably, is for ev­ery­body to wor­ship to­gether in a way to please the at­tor­ney gen­eral. Shall we have an Epis­co­pal ser­vice? Pen­te­costal? Must Bap­tists sprin­kle, or Methodists dunk? Must Tiger Woods play a round of Sun­day golf with Dick Cheney? Do I get to spend Satur­day at the beach with Halle Berry?

Self-righ­teous calls for “a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion on race” are ac­tu­ally calls for “a na­tional con­fes­sion” of some­body else’s sin. What we ac­tu­ally need is to move on. We’ve al­ready moved far from the bad old days when color counted more than char­ac­ter, and any­one who wants ev­i­dence need only look around.

Amer­ica had much to atone for and Amer­ica has de­liv­ered. No other coun­try in his­tory has turned it­self in­side out to make amends, even dis­patch­ing the Army to Lit­tle Rock and Ox­ford and Tuscaloosa. No­body de­serves par­tic­u­lar thanks for do­ing the right thing, just as no­body de­serves thanks for be­ing good to his mother. But the work of Amer­i­cans he re­viles as “cow­ards” is some­thing that Mr. Holder, who says he is a stu­dent of Amer­i­can his­tory, ought to know about.

Wes­ley Pru­den is ed­i­tor emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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