A day after the Trayvon Martin verdict, President Obama issued a carefully-phrased, 166-word statement expressing his sadness for the Martin family and urging “calm reflection” from people angered by the decision.
Senior administration aides played down the idea that the nation’s first black president would use the case as a way to start some broader dialogue on race in America.
The next day, one of the administration’s other key black figures emerged publicly. And just as in 2009, when he cast America as a “nation of cowards” unwilling to discuss race, or last year, when he likened Republican-sponsored voter ID laws to the Jim Crow era, he was ready to say much more on a controversial issue that touched on race than the president. Attorney General Eric Holder effectively called for the kind of racial discussion the White House didn’t embrace.
It was the latest example of how Holder often speaks on race with a boldness President Obama avoids.
A key civil rights ally
“I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that his case has raised,” Holder told an audience of more than 1,000 Monday at the D.C. convention for Delta Sigma Theta, a black female sorority. “We must not, as we have too often in the past, let this opportunity pass.”
On Tuesday, speaking at the annual convention of the NAACP in Orlando, Holder not only again repeated his call for more racial dialogue, but urged states to review “Stand Your Ground” laws and Congress to update the Voting Rights Act, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law’s Section 4.
Both are major causes for African-American political activists.
Holder, the first-ever black attorney general, has not made racial issues the sole focus of his often-embattled five years at the head of the Justice Department. But he has emerged as a key ambassador to the African-American community and civil rights activists, speaking on issues and to causes that the White House has often not highlighted. He frequently attends conventions of groups like the NAACP and the National Action Network, the group run by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Civil activists consider him a key ally.
Holder not shy on race
“He’s not shy about talking about race,” said Matt Miller, who was Holder’s top spokesman from 2009-2011.
It’s a misnomer to suggest President Obama does not talk about race, most notably last year, when he declared, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” a remark that galvanized African-Americans but irritated some conservatives who felt the nation’s chief executive should not comment on a legal issue that could end up in court.
But since an off-the-cuff statement in 2009 that police in Massachusetts had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home, the president has avoided that kind of blunt rhetoric on racial issues. He has not delivered a version of his eloquent 2008 campaign speech on race while in office. When the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act last month, Holder and Vice President Biden condemned the decision publicly that day, while the president delivered a long-planned speech on climate change.
Enter Holder. He was criticized by the White House, including Obama himself, for the “nation of cowards” line. (Obama told the New York Times then, “I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.”)
But that speech, given at the Black History Month Celebration at the Department of Justice five years ago, illustrated an attorney general eager to speak about uncomfortable subjects.
“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. This is truly sad,” he said, referring to racial separation at churches and many settings outside of workplaces.
The voting rights fight
Since that speech, Holder has not publicly mused about what Americans do on weekends, largely speaking on racial issues that involve his job as attorney general. But he has been remained controversial on racial matters.
Other Obama administration officials have criticized laws, most pushed through state legislatures by Republicans, that require people to present driver’s licenses to vote.
But Holder’s last year rhetoric seemed almost intentionally designed to rally black activists, even at the risk of annoying Republicans. He described voter ID laws, which polls suggest even many blacks support, as “poll taxes.”
“Mr. Holder, stop diminishing the luster of the Voting Rights Act by politicizing this rare and shining example of historic bipartisan unity,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc), one of the most vocal Republicans in support of the act, wrote in an op-ed for Politico.
Holder’s department is at the center of a number of controversies between the GOP and the Obama administration, and his strained relationships with key Republicans on Capitol Hill will limit any influence the attorney general has in any renewed effort on the Voting Rights Act. Legal experts say it is unlikely Holder’s department will file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the wake of Martin’s death. And Holder has little ability to change state gun laws like “Stand Your Ground” or push a broader conversation on race that extends beyond the Martin trial.
Those limits aside, he seems determined to use his bully pulpit to speak about race in a matter few other public officials do.
“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,” Holder said Tuesday, referring to his father telling him when he was young to be careful in his interactions with police. “This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. 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.”
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr