"IN THINGS RACIAL we have always been . . . essentially a nation of cowards" because "average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race." Thus spake Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech last week marking Black History Month -- a speech in which he also bewailed the fact that modern America frequently "does not . . . differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago."
Holder's racial melancholy struck many people as peculiar, inasmuch as he is the first black American to head the Justice Department, and inasmuch as the American president who appointed him -- a president elected by a healthy margin last November -- is the most celebrated black man in the world. Was such gloom really called for in a speech marking the first Black History Month of the Obama presidency?
Yet that wasn't the only message to come out of the Obama administration last week.
Though it didn't get the same media attention, an equally high-ranking Cabinet secretary gave a speech for Black History Month that suggested a somewhat different take on America's racial condition -- one more upbeat and appreciative.
"Race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion," he said, but "in racial terms the country that existed before the civil rights struggle is almost unrecognizable to us today. Separate public facilities, separate entrances, poll taxes, legal discrimination, forced labor, in essence an American apartheid" -- all of it, he acknowledged, had been relegated by the Civil Rights movement to the ash heap of history. Today, Americans of every color "work with one another, lunch together, and ... socialize with one another," especially during the workweek.
The administration official who delivered those remarks? Attorney General Eric Holder. Both the racial lament and the glad tidings were part of the same speech. The obnoxious line about Americans being "a nation of cowards" drew the headlines, as perhaps it was intended to, but the speech as a whole was inconsistent and incoherent. Perhaps Holder intended to offer a nuanced argument about race in the Age of Obama. What he delivered was a muddle.
Every sensible American knows that racial problems still exist in the United States. But what can justify Holder's belief that the only way to surmount them is to have "frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us?" He has it exactly backward. Harping on old grievances, constantly revisiting past resentments, relentlessly picking at scabs -- those are a recipe not for social harmony but for social antagonism. To be sure, there are those who have made it their life's work to keep racial umbrage at a constant boil: men like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke, Al Sharpton. But is theirs the sort of "frank conversation" Holder thinks we need more of?
In any event, the notion that Americans can't bring themselves to talk about race is preposterous. Did we not just come through a seemingly endless presidential campaign in which race was a seemingly endless topic of discussion? Wasn't Barack Obama praised to the skies for giving a whole speech on the subject of race? Were Americans reluctant to discuss "things racial," as Holder puts it, when Don Imus slurred the Rutgers women's basketball team? Or when Jeremiah Wright damned the "US of KKK-A?" Or when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans? Or when John Rocker shot his mouth off? Or when three Duke lacrosse players were indicted for rape?
Americans have been jawboning about race for 2½ centuries, and we are in no danger of running out of things to say. More race talk is the last thing we need. As a nation and as individuals, the less race matters to us, the less thought we give it, the more racial progress we will make. Our goal should be not to dwell on "things racial" but to see beyond them.
Just as millions of Americans already do.
In the early 1960s, when Barack Obama's white mother married his black father, there were fewer than 15,000 interracial marriages in the United States. By 1980, there were 650,000. Today, there are nearly 2.3 million. Obama was only a toddler when Martin Luther King dreamed of a nation in which people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Day by day, we are becoming that nation.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)