Eric Holder gave a personal glimpse into his family life this week when he told the NAACP that he has had to discuss with his son what he terms a "sad reality" about lingering racism in today's society. In his speech, Holder explained that he has advised his son — as his father once advised him — about how he must, as a young black man, interact carefully with the police, who may judge him based on his race.
Holder's claims are jarring, on the one hand, in that they indicate that the nation's top legal enforcer is outright wary (and publicly so) of the legal system he directs. And yet, Holder's comments must not be overblown with alarmist pessimism in the wake of the tenuous post-Trayvon Martin landscape of national discourse. The attorney general's recent statements should instead be taken as an important reminder that racism is often an issue that's difficult to legally and politically address, even by those at the helm of government, and thus remains a problem that can benefit from more open, respectful dialogue across American society.
"As a father who loves his son," Holder explained, he has had to "have a conversation about how as a young black man [his son] should interact with the police." "This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down," he told the audience.
Holder went on to describe his own experience of being stopped by a police officer one evening in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. while on his way to see a movie, when he perceived his race, rather than his behavior, informed his experience with law enforcement. He was working as a federal prosecutor at the time of the incident.
The issue of racial profiling in law enforcement has long raised heated debate in American politics, with arguments still flung about that using race as a factor in law enforcement (for example, in airport security) can help "keep Americans safe."
President Obama has even been accused of tacitly supporting racial profiling by publicly floating the name of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly for secretary of homeland security (Kelly has been challenged as a supporter of using race as a factor in "stop and frisk" programs in New York).
Racial profiling is, of course, a politically and legally sticky issue that can be increasingly difficult to define and monitor. While personal accounts can be hair-raising, there often exist few legal avenues for those who experience injustice to prove and/or seek recourse. There have been numerous scholarly and analytical methods employed to try to test for and measure racial profiling in law enforcement, and little consensus exists among those trying to track the problem. And for this reason, there remain few policy options available to offer a broad-based legal or policy solution.
"It is my responsibility," Holder explained in his recent speech, "not to burden [my son] with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world that he must still confront."
And yet, by admitting so publicly to such a personal level of distrust with his own law enforcement system in this recent speech (among others), Holder himself has been accused of "fanning the racial fires," making it more difficult to come to meaningful solutions by perpetuating (his accusers claim) ideas of racial antagonism and mistrust with such statements.
Unfortunately, the decision to teach children about the injustices around us while encouraging them to remain open-minded, trusting citizens can be an incredibly difficult task.
Holder's statements should not simply be taken as indicative of a tragically broken, even irreparable justice system. This personal glimpse into Holder's own experiences regarding race and his family should instead serve more productively as a reminder that racism is an issue that merits more open, forthright dialogue among Americans today in hopes of achieving greater understanding and trust, rather than pessimism and fear, in generations to come.