- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

A forceful Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race and vowed that the Justice Department would assume a greater role in fighting racism and other discrimination.

“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,” Mr. Holder said.

“Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

The bold remarks from the nation’s first black attorney general were made to Justice Department employees during an event commemorating Black History Month. He said the Justice Department bears special responsibility in addressing racial ills and referenced President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to describe the department’s mission.

“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,” he said. “This is our duty and our solemn obligation.”

The criticism from conservatives came swiftly and strongly.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch, said Mr. Holder’s remarks suggest he will pursue a “radical” agenda as attorney general.

“I just think he’s out of touch with the everyday American’s experience on race,” Mr. Fitton said. “I think we’re going to revert to the bad old days of the federal government of pushing quotas and race-conscious public policy.”

He rebutted Mr. Holder’s remarks calling America cowardly, saying that if the presidential election of Barack Obama “doesn’t prove the nation’s bravery, I don’t know what will.”

Conservative elections-lawyer Cleta Mitchell chided Mr. Holder for not realizing he is “chief law enforcement officer of the United States not a camp counselor.”

“I worked my way through law school as the only white person in the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission, the Title VII agency in Oklahoma,” she told The Washington Times. “I deeply resent Attorney General Holder’s comments” because “I think it is bad manners to ‘discuss’ someone’s race with them. What’s to discuss? It is like someone wanting to discuss my Oklahoma accent with me. What’s to say? ‘Hey, you talk funny?’ ”

More specifically, Mr. Holder told reporters after the event that he will help put his words into action by revitalizing the department’s civil rights division.

“It’s a division that has not gotten the attention it deserves, the resources it deserves and people have not been given a sense of mission,” he said. “I am bound and determined to make that section the vital place that it always has been.”

Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice said Mr. Holder’s speech indicates a sea change for the civil rights division. She said the Bush administration essentially reversed the division’s course on voting rights, bringing more voting fraud cases than voting rights cases.

“The Bush administration made politics the chief criteria for hiring, which resulted in career lawyers whose personal views were hostile to the mission of the division,” she said. “This attorney general is now committed to restoring the division to its time-honored role of enforcement civil rights law, instead of dismantling it.”

But Mr. Fitton said Mr. Holder will use the civil rights division to champion liberal causes and seek to marginalize conservatives who work there.

“The civil rights division is going to be turned upside down,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be an alleged conservative hired by the Bush administration in this Justice Department.”

Mr. Holder said that despite high-profile gains among blacks in the recent elections, there are many more hurdles to clear.

“The fact that we have an African-American attorney general, an African-American president I think is extremely significant but it is not an indication that all of the problems that we have confronted as a nation over the years are now resolved,” Mr. Holder told reporters.

“I think we have an obligation to continue the fight of all the people who I mentioned in my speech to really kind of ultimately get this nation to the place where I think it can and should be.”

During his speech, Mr. Holder said that while the workplace is quite integrated, American life is not.

“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,” he said. “This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.”

Mr. Holder urged frank discussion about race, including potentially “awkward subjects.”

He said “the conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own, narrow self-interest.”

“If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted - and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about 50 years - the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization,” he said.

“We cannot allow this to happen, and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely - and to do so now.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.