Sunday, February 22, 2009

Boyce Watkins on Eric Holder

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

Attorney General Eric Holder took heat this week for doing something that most Black elected officials are simply not willing to do: He told the truth about race. During a Black History Month speech, the Attorney General lost some major political points by stating that when it comes to discussing race in America, we have become “a nation of cowards”. I couldn’t have been prouder, for you have to be pretty damn brave to admit that we are as cowardly as we are.

I watched the words roll out of Holder’s mouth like steamy breath pouring out on a cold winter day. I simply couldn’t believe it. Eric Holder wasn’t just speaking about Black History, he was MAKING Black History. While everyone looks to the first Black President to deliver something other than Ebony magazine covers, I am also looking to see if the first Black Attorney General can deliver some real progress on a justice system that has mutilated Black families across the nation.

Sure, being the first Black Attorney General is a nice accomplishment, almost cute. I don’t use the word “cute” to demean the significance of Holder’s achievements, but far too many African Americans are focused on obtaining such accolades in America as long as they remember to never really use their prominence to make a difference. You are given the keys to the vault as long as you firmly agree to keep the keys out of the reach of the Black masses. You are not to mention race in any meaningful way, and if you do, you’ll get body slammed, even by the most liberal among us. Racism in America is deep, and the disease has the greatest impact on those who think they’ve been cured.

Don’t believe me? Just answer this question (I say this as someone who likes Barack Obama and voted for him): When was the last time you heard President Barack Obama even say the words “black man”, “black men”, or “black male” in any forum other than a Black event? Instead, you only hear him speaking for the middle class and gleefully indulging us with borderline ridiculous and hyper-redundant comparisons to Abraham Lincoln (who is given far too much credit for the ending of slavery). Were he to compare himself to Martin Luther King or even acknowledge the existence of Malcolm X, he would be crucified for it. President Obama is allowed to humiliate and chastise Black men in speeches about personal responsibility, but he would be severely punished if he were to give those same speeches to the masses of Americans who have squandered their wealth and helped to destroy our financial system (especially those on Wall Street). He speaks on Black men needing to take accountability in spite of urban Black male unemployment rates as high as 40%, while he uses policy support and massive spending to coddle a nation dealing with 7.4% unemployment. I say all this as a fan of Barack Obama, but I also say this as a man who believes that the hard work on racial equality must be done by those in power if we are to ever have a chance of fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. This does not imply that Barack Obama does not believe in racial equality. It is to say that he is likely being told that discussing the truth on race in America will get him into serious trouble. Even if you are not a coward yourself, you are forced into taking cowardly positions on honest racial dialogue when you realize that the punishment for such engagement is incredibly steep.

I know what Eric Holder was talking about in that speech. I know that the price for speaking honestly on race is high, for I pay it every day on my own campus (I will probably pay it for writing this article). Every day, I witness conversations being had around the dinner table that most Black people know they cannot have in public. Eric Holder, by virtue of his willingness to bring the dinner table conversations into the public eye, has now joined me in the group that has been labeled to be “bad angry Black men”.

Being labeled as the “Angry Black Man” can be sad and hurtful. It doesn’t matter how nice you are. I can be as friendly and personable as I want, but the truth of the matter is that if you speak openly about the mass incarceration of Black males, the horrific conditions of inner city schools or the massive unemployment rates of Black males across America, you are going to be attacked and discredited for it. I saw Lou Dobbs (CNN’s version of Bill O’Reilly) mention that he doesn’t feel that Holder is “passing the test” to be qualified as Attorney General, all because Holder made one strong statement about racial equality, one that Martin Luther King would agree with wholeheartedly. What is saddest about our nation is that we have a long history of crucifying those who’ve pushed hardest for our country to advance its racial dialogue. The response to such conversation is as predictable as a dog in front of a bowl of Puppy Chow.

I once recall mentioning the idea of having a prominent Black scholar come to my campus to speak on the social implications and questionable capitalist incentives of mass incarceration and stock ownership in the prison industry. This was a Finance topic, and I am a Finance professor. The idea was shot down immediately by another Black man who felt it would scare the people on campus. When I do CNN interviews on matters related to race, higher administrators on my campus celebrate interviews by other faculty while pretending that my interview never happened. Black scholarship is considered to be “ghetto scholarship”, because those evaluating the quality of such work are typically those who understand or appreciate it the least. The issue of race is demeaned to being a footnote of worthless banter by those who need to learn to keep their mouths shut.

Where Eric Holder and I differ is that he is far more courageous than me. He has decided that he can both be the Attorney General of the United States and speak honestly on behalf of African Americans. I gave up on being a campus Dean, President or high ranking government official a long time ago, since I enjoy the freedom of speech that comes with academic marginalization. I run my own business so that no one can control me financially and pull the suffocating purse strings that cause the rest of us to keep the truth in our pockets. The funniest part of it all is that every piece of historical evidence says that we are simply engaging in the same denial as the previous generation. When I was approached about joining the Obama Administration, I immediately said no – I love Barack to death, but I am not interested in being controlled by lies and pandering. I am not sure what Eric Holder was trying to do with his statement, but I am incredibly proud of him and I hope his statement is a signal regarding how he will conduct business as The United States Attorney General. Our country should be absolutely ashamed of the way it has dismissed Black men in the prison system, giving them longer sentences for the same crimes, disenfranchising them from the rest of the world and using the criminal justice system as a path to modern day slavery. If only we could get liberal groups to be as passionate over this injustice as they are about saving the environment. Perhaps then, meaningful and mutually respectful multi-racial coalitions can exist.

Eric Holder, you have my respect. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to feel that way. Yes, you are right, we are a nation of cowards, and until we gain the courage to have honest conversations, we are always going to be plagued by race. Dreams (like that of Dr. King) are created while we are sleeping. But these dreams are fulfilled when our eyes are wide open and we are wide awake. Wake up America…’s time to be honest.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He makes regular appearances in national media, including CNN, ESPN, BET and CBS. For more information, please visit

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