- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

Americans spelled it out in black and white Thursday.

The public discourse on race relations rattled with mixed emotions after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s bold assertion that the U.S. is a “nation of cowards” when addressing the realities of the ethnic melting pot.

Mr. Holder was condemned and praised for his comment by a mixed group that included academics, analysts, news anchors, bloggers, talk radio listeners and ordinary folks. More than 1,000 news stories appeared within 24 hours, chronicling both outrage at Mr. Holder’s tone and glee over his Obama-style audacity.

“Eric Holder’s right. We do remain segregated in many ways. Trying to break down the barriers makes people uncomfortable. This is not an easy conversation to have, but it is a crucial conversation. And one way to get it started is to speak out in the way Holder did. He was provocative, and I applaud it,” said CNN anchor Campbell Brown.

“Serious and thoughtful conversations about race aren’t possible in today’s American culture, where name-calling and hurled epithets are the acme of discourse. Name-calling is a conversation ender,” said Bill Willingham, a blogger with BigHollywood.com. “Here’s a hint. Calling everyone a coward isn’t a good place to start.”

The White House had no official response to either the comments or the caterwaul.

There’s lots of it. Big buzz occurred. Mr. Holder generated an ultimate public relations moment - but it was not random.

“This was a deliberate and studied event. It sounds cynical, but things like this don’t happen accidentally. Holder is a savvy man. Three small words created a ruckus, and each of those words was chosen very carefully,” said Richard Laermer, author of “Full Frontal PR” and a Manhattan public relations consultant.

“If he had made his point in some dull way, everyone would have said, ‘Oh, shut up.’ No one could have blogged about it, or ‘twittered’ about it in 140 characters or less. That’s how Americans get information these days. And Holder is right: We don’t talk about race, out of fear we’ll push the wrong buttons,” Mr. Laermer said.

Button pushing, however, was the strategy.

“The attorney general chose these provocative words to make it clear that Americans of all races should be open and honest with each other on a difficult issue,” said Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Americans across the country were indeed open and honest about Mr. Holder on Thursday.

“I am surprised that he is stirring the pot,” said Song-su Kim, a young Korean restaurateur in Okemos, Mich.

“Until you really get to know someone of another ethnic race, you always base all your assumptions on fear. It’s more of ignorance than anything else,” he said. “Today yes, I don’t think here is enormous hatred toward races or cultures, but it’s widely segregated. Asian people hang out with Asian people, black people hang out with other black people, white people with white people. It’s a comfort zone.”

“I think race remains a very complex issue. It’s very hard for people in my generation not to have racially charged memories,” said Bonnie Bucqueroux, a retired Michigan State University instructor.

“I think we always promise to have that great conversation on race but we never have it. … The issue makes white people uncomfortable. We don’t want to be challenged. It’s much easier to go back to our white neighborhoods at night and not have to worry about those issues. Many of us feel guilty when we are reminded of that,” she added.

The complexity also confounds the press.

A survey of 500 minority journalists released Thursday by UNITY, a watchdog group advocating fair coverage of ethnic diversity, revealed that 92 percent of the respondents said, “The mainstream media was still not effectively covering race relations in a multiracial society.”

They attributed the shortcoming to a lack of diversity in newsrooms and a “lack of understanding” among editors and producers responsible for the final news products.

Meanwhile, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a scholar of black studies at Princeton University, ultimately declared Mr. Holder’s speech a failure.

“It failed because Holder spoke more like a grade school principal than like the attorney general of the United States,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “I would prefer Holder use the Department of Justice to sue those who illegally discriminate against racial minorities rather than holding encounter sessions in the lunchroom.”

• Andrea Billups in Michigan contributed to this report.

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