Eric Holder and Cowards

February 26th, 2009

Attorney General Eric Holder recently described America as a “nation of cowards” because we avoid discussing unresolved racial issues:

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. …

… we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.

It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation’s history, this is in some ways understandable. If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.

With all due respect to the Attorney General, this is unrealistic nonsense. 

On the one hand, it seems that we talk about race incessantly.  Anyone who watches TV, goes to movies, reads news media, listens to music, or talks to other people is frequently involved in or exposed to the never-ending discussion of race.

On the other hand, the enduring climate of political correctness demands that we not only talk about race but that we do it very, very cautiously in order to avoid even accidentally offending one aggrieved group or another.  Is that caution what the Attorney General regards as cowardice?  Or is it a rational response to the threat of complaints, investigations, discipline, and possibly the loss of a job?

Many of us know someone who’s been caught in this particular meatgrinder, if it hasn’t happened to us personally.  Someone I know very well, an employee of a government department in Washington, casually made an innocent statement one day that was in no way racist or offensive, at least to a reasonable person.  One of the people in the conversation, however, filed a complaint of racism.  This, against a person who has no discernible racist feelings or prejudice of any kind.  The result was a nightmare, with the person’s job hanging in the balance.  After a humiliating, protracted investigation, a stern warning that blemished that person’s file, and repeated apologies to the “offended” person, the issue finally died.  If that person is subsequently reluctant to engage in conversations that touch on race, is that cowardice?

A case that many might remember was the infamous “niggardly” controversy in Washington, D.C.  Ten years ago David Howard, a white employee of the D.C. government, used the word “niggardly” in discussing budget issues.  Any high school graduate should know that the word means miserly, stingy, or reluctant to spend.  However, a co-worker who heard him say the word thought it was related to the “n” word, which I dare not print.  A complaint of racist language was made, rumors started to fly that he had used the “n” word, and the pressure became so great that he resigned.  According to The Washington Post, the D.C. mayor said that he neither asked nor encouraged Howard to resign,

But he agreed that the resignation was necessary and that Howard could no longer be effective as a public advocate.

“It’s a matter of good judgment,” he said. “I liken it to, here we are in a refinery and you shouldn’t smoke in a refinery. I think what David did was [to] get caught smoking in a refinery, which would result in an explosion.”

Williams said Howard could return to the administration in another position, but one that did not require as much constituent contact. The mayor also insisted the incident will not send a chill through his administration or lead to an overly sensitive workplace.

As it turned out, Howard was re-hired by the mayor in a different position.  Part of the reason was pressure applied by some fair-minded black leaders and, ironically, the local gay community, who defended Howard because he’s gay.  I’m sure Howard is very careful today about saying anything that could be construed as racist, even out of ignorance.

The word “niggardly” is still part of my vocabulary.  I used to use it, too, like any other word.  I’m sure I said it in working environments and used it in official written documents.  But not since the ordeal of David Howard.  Does that make me a coward, Mr. Attorney General, or just a survivor?

UPDATE:  President Obama took Attorney General Holder to the woodshed, gently, on March 6.  According to a report in The New York Times, Obama said, “I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language.”


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3 Responses to “Eric Holder and Cowards”



  1. Kevin |

    Well… this may not surprise you (LOL) but I don’t think I fully agree with either you or Holden, although I think both of you are speaking to issues that are partially realistic.

    Where I strongly part ways with Holden is based on my experience. My experience has consistently been that we are, by and large, a nation of axe grinders. Race is no exception. Meaning that many blacks approach it more interested in grinding their particular ethnic axe than any other. Ditto for many hispanics, indians, plug in whatever slighted ethnic group you can think of.

    Everyone seems to want to grind an axe on behalf of their chosen ethnicity and precious few seem to give a damn about anything beyond that.

    Rather than a nation of cowards, as Holden claims. I’d say we’re a nation of the selfish, interested more in what we can get than in what we can give. And it extends well beyond ethnicity to any sort of self-perceived disenfranchised group.

    I’m a long-time single dad and used to haunt single parent message boards. But I quickly found out that I was widely considered part of the problem because of my gender and, more relevantly here, I found that almost none of the moms dealing with ex-husbands actually gave a flying rat’s backside about any kids except their own. They talk a good talk about it all being about what’s best for the kids. But that was just how they rationalized it to themselves. The vitriol dished out about kids their exhusbands had with later partners was shocking, but very revealing at the same time.

    And that’s just an example. I see the exact same dynamic with gay rights activists who talk about equality but don’t seem to actually be nearly as interested in equality as they are in forcing hetero’s to accept them on whatever terms they dictate. Plug in whatever other group has adopted (some for admittedly legit reasons!) victimhood and I think you’ll find the same dynamic there too.

    We’re selfish and the labels are more about weaponry than they are about equality. IMHO, as always.


  2. Tom |

    I think you’re absolutely right, Kevin. Imagine how much better off our society would be if we could stop all the axe-grinding and just treat each other as individual human beings, each according to his or her own merit.

    My view is obviously influenced by my life experience, which includes a long career in the military. The U.S. armed forces is the most diverse, fully integrated sector of our society, and I grew up seeing people treated on the basis of their personal merit. There are a few bumps in the road now and then, people being people, but by and large it’s the model I know.


  3. diehlberg |

    the spirit of this piece is right on the money. apparently most of the cowards flee their homeland and move to live within the beltway. though i’m not very religious i must admit i was a little surprised to read the beltway encircling the talking heads in washington is 66.6 miles long. so that is where the beast resides…lol. no real surprise there.


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