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You Talkin' To Me?

Are we a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race?

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I wouldn't suppose anyone likes to be called a coward, even if you are one. Yet Attorney General Eric Holder said we were a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing matters of race. I understand Holder's purpose was to chastise and challenge people of all races about our national unwillingness to have a dialogue about what is really going on in our society. But, only a month after we elected our first African-American president with an unprecedented outpouring of good will, was "cowards" the wisest terminology to describe American society? Where I come from, those are fighting words.

I recall another first: Andrew Young, who was ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter, in debate with the British delegation, said the English were intimately familiar with racism since "they pretty much invented it." What he said may have been factually correct, but his job was to be a diplomat.

Perhaps I've lived in the South so long that I've developed a touch of redneck, but Holder's comments unexpectedly made my blood rise. It was akin to being a kid on the playground pushed to the ground by the class bully. You can either sit there and put your cowardice on display or charge the bully and fight while simultaneously praying for someone to break it up. I'm a pacifist who understands the intention, but Holder's unfortunate choice of words served to inflame many of the people who were already on his side and feeling uplifted over our historical national achievement. The unfortunate part of this episode is that Holder is right about the need for racial dialogue, but his message was lost in the rancor of his clumsy provocation.

Holder succeeded in pretty much offending everyone, including, I imagine, President Obama. The president has so far been very careful to be nonconfrontational and inclusive in his speeches. I wonder if Holder ran that little doozy past him first? In a joint appearance, shortly after the inauguration, when Vice President Joe Biden joked about Chief Justice John "No Notes" Roberts mangling the oath of office, Obama grabbed his elbow and gave him a glance like a parent would a feckless child. I hardly believe the president would approve of his new attorney general, in one of his first public speeches, making well-intentioned but divisive remarks. A racial discussion would be a good thing, but right now, it's a few notches down in urgency, behind the economy and an impending depression. First, clean up the Justice Department, then we'll talk.

In fact, had Holder taken the long view, he might have seen what I have seen in recent years. I am among the remaining members of a generation of Memphians who never sat in a classroom with a black student until they reached college. Attempting interracial friendships took some outreach and understanding by all parties, but I was never afraid to discuss race with anyone.

Back in the day, I noticed a curious thing about both whites and blacks from a segregated society attempting to talk to one another for the first time. Whites would adapt some imagined hip-patois or jive lingo, while blacks would often become more pronounced in speaking with white people than they were with each another.

An entire generation of people are still awkward around each other simply because of their forced separation in childhood. Such is not the case with young people like my stepson, Cameron, who knows not the curse of segregation. I marvel at the seamlessness of his friendships with people of all races. Cameron doesn't have "black" friends or "Asian" friends; they are all just his friends. Holder's "nation of cowards" phrase harkens back to a generation when races were separated by law. As in 1968, we are still somewhat a nation divided by age, econonic status, religion, and, yes, race. But the warriors of the civil rights movement — and their opponents — are rapidly aging, soon to be replaced by a post-racial society.

Since Holder was being blunt to make a point, let me be blunt as well.

General Holder, before you come out swinging and calling people of goodwill "cowards," you may wish to first display some courage yourself. The conflagration at Waco and the storm-trooper mission to retrieve Elian Gonzalez are not sterling references on your resume. I already know you will be a wiser attorney general than John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales, but maybe you should hold off with the blanket criticisms until you have at least passed the Janet Reno threshold.

Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born Again Hippies," where a version of this first appeared.

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