Wickham: Holder cites true threat to civil rights
By DeWayne Wickham
Attorney general’s commencement speech focuses not on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling but court conservatives.
BALTIMORE — The thing to remember about the commencement address Attorney General Eric Holder gave Saturday is not that he wrote off the racist musing of people such as Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland. As deplorable as they were, he correctly said, they “are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged” against far greater threats to the civil rights of this nation’s minorities.
Sterling is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team who was caught on an audio recording speaking disparagingly of blacks. Copeland was the Wolfeboro, N.H., police commissioner who resigned Monday after he was overheard in a restaurant referring to President Obama as “that f------ n-----.” As bigots go, both men were forged from the same mold that produces the rank and file Klansman.
But Holder didn’t come to this city, the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to call out the foot soldiers of this nation’s still deeply entrenched resistance to civil rights. He didn’t have to travel up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and take the stage of Morgan State University’s commencement ceremony to do that, no matter how many news organizations put that tag on his speech.
Instead, Holder — the first black to hold the job as the nation’s top law enforcement officer — courageously named Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as a greater threat to the cause of civil rights than “misguided words that we can reject out of hand.”
Coming from a sitting attorney general, Holder’s sharp rebuke of Roberts — and the conservative majority that he leads — is unprecedented. But it is not unwarranted.
He “has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether,” Holder said of the chief justice. “This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted.”
Then Holder craftily — and maybe too subtlely for some reviewers — invoked the words and judicial logic of one of the Supreme Court’s liberal justices to counter Roberts’ myopia.
As “Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admission case, we must not ‘wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. … The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.’”
Indeed. Holder, of course, knows that. But by using the platform of a university commencement speech to focus attention on “policies that too easily escape” the strict scrutiny courts give to openly discriminatory laws “because they have the appearance of being race-neutral,” Holder is calling out the conservatives on the court.
Can I get an “amen” here?
Such biting criticism will not endear the attorney general to the conservative legion that is the Praetorian Guard of Roberts’ “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” school of racial justice. But there are times when a battle for that which is right must be fought in the court of public opinion.
Holder understands that the victory he seeks in the fight for racial justice needs the support of a broad cross section of Americans — not just the minorities who will be its most obvious beneficiaries. I suspect that is why he made this point to appeal for wide support among fair-minded people: “In our criminal justice system, systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common.” Black men, he said, “have received sentences that are nearly 20% longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes,” Holder told the members of Morgan’s graduating class.
Then, smartly, he left this emerging generation of leaders to make the connection between that harsh fact and Roberts’ head-in-the-sand strategy for ending racial discrimination.
I don’t think they’ll have any problems doing that.
DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.