- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A forceful Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called the United States “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race and vowed 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.”

Text of Mr. Holder’s speech

The bold remarks from the nation’s first black attorney general were made to Justice Department employees during an event commemorating Black History Month.

Mr. Holder 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.”

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.”

Mr. Holder said that despite high-profile gains among blacks in the recent elections, there are many hurdles yet 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,” he said.

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 fifty 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 that “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 fifty 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.”

During the brief news conference, Mr. Holder also announced he will travel next week to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which President Obama has ordered within a year.

“We need to have our feet on the ground to really see what is going on down at the facility, to see how people are being detained, to talk to people down there about interrogation techniques that are being used,” Mr. Holder said.

“I think this will be an important first step as we try to resolve the issues that the president has put before me as the chairman of those review committees.”

An appellate court ruling Wednesday illustrates just how complicated it will be to figure out what to do with the 245 detainees who remain at the prison.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a lower court order that a group of 17 Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, be released into the United States. The 17 Uighurs have been at Guantanamo since 2002 but were ordered released after a judge ruled in October there was no evidence indicating they were a threat and, as a result, the U.S. does not have authority to detain them.

The appellate court ruled that the lower court didn’t have the authority to order the Uighurs released into the United States. For now, the Uighurs remain at Guantanamo, as it remains uncertain where they can be safely released. They cannot be returned to China because they may face serious repercussions.

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