SAN DIEGO — It’s graduation time, and public officials are delivering commencement addresses at colleges and universities. That is, if they pass the litmus test. Students and faculty extol the virtues of tolerance and diversity, but often they don’t tolerate diverse points of view.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently shared his views with graduates of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. Marking the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case, Holder gave a generally upbeat speech that talked about the contributions of earlier generations of African-Americans while lamenting the lack of progress in other areas.
Then he veered off course, telling his audience to beware of racial slights that are not always so apparent.
“These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done – because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines,” Holder said. “They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.”
Holder must see himself as the nation’s racial conscience. He needs to tread more lightly on this subject.
In 2009, the attorney general called the United States a “nation of cowards” who were afraid to talk about race. Of course, we talk about race all the time – in matters big and small, and often without any discernible benefit.
Just a few weeks ago, speaking to a predominantly black audience at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Holder referred to his treatment by House committees charged with oversight of the Justice Department. The nation’s first African-American attorney general implied that Republicans are disrespectful toward him because of his skin color. In coded language, Holder condemned what he sees as “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks. He asked: “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”
What a silly statement. Has Holder ever heard of Alberto Gonzales and George W. Bush? “Disrespectful” is a good word to describe how those men were treated by Washington’s liberal triad – Democrats, the media, and left-leaning advocacy organizations.
Holder later denied that his remarks had any racial subtext. This took nerve. The attorney general plays the race card, then denies he was even in the game.
Now, in his remarks at Morgan State, Holder gave the young people in the audience an easy out, an excuse for whatever they might not accomplish in life: subtle racism.
In life, most of us will experience failures, setbacks and disappointments. We’ll be denied admission to college, struggle to find a job, get laid off, lose homes, fail at business, etc.
The Morgan State graduates are fortunate. Now they have a way to rationalize the bad things that will happen to them. It’ll be the fault of “subtle” racism.
That’s not the most helpful message to impart to young people – especially on graduation day. Here’s what Holder should have told the students:
I want you to succeed. That means I want you to work hard, dream big, challenge yourself, go outside your comfort zone, and sacrifice when necessary to be the absolute best at whatever you choose to do. Follow your passion, and put in the time and effort needed to become excellent at your craft. The rest will take care of itself. When you fail – and, by the way, I hope you learn from each failure because that’s how we grow – don’t make excuses, or play the victim, or look for villains to blame. Let’s not be naive. There will be sinister forces out there. Not everyone will cheer you on, and some folks may even try to drag you down. And guess what? Some of those people will look just like you. When that happens, don’t surrender to what you think are all-powerful forces. Instead, make yourself even more powerful by working even harder and taking control of your destiny. The biggest obstacles in life are self-imposed. So don’t impose any. Good luck.
Holder had a valuable opportunity to offer guidance to the next generation. Had he given more thought to his remarks and emphasized personal responsibility, this public servant would have done a public service. Instead, he made another public spectacle.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.