Holder Seen as a Chance To Right Racial Wrongs

Carrie Johnson and Krissah Thompson, Washington Post, February 5, 2009


This week, Eric H. Holder Jr.’s swearing-in as the nation’s first black attorney general and its top law enforcement official came weighted with heavy expectation that the system could change.


Civil rights advocates are already outlining a long list of priorities, including changing laws that lead to disproportionate prison terms for blacks, ending racial profiling and stepping up the policing of discrimination in employment and housing.

“The most important thing is that we have a person who gets it,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. “He understands that the purpose of incarceration is not just punishment and protection but it is also redemption. He understands that people shouldn’t be targeted because of what they look like but because of what they do. He understands that enforcing civil rights serves the interest of law enforcement. It’s not about what he looks like, it’s about what he believes.”

Holder will oversee civil rights enforcement, crime prevention and racial justice–issues with a broad impact and audience–among many competing priorities in an agency that also plays a central role in fighting terrorism and policing corporate abuse. {snip}


“As someone who witnessed the civil rights movement and whose family members literally suffered through the evils of segregation, I hope I can bring a unique perspective to the department,” he said. “This department has played a historic role in civil rights over the years, and I owe it to those who came before me and to the American people I serve to oversee a vigorous enforcement program that deals with the realities we confront today.”

On issues of crime and punishment, Holder brings his background as a hard-nosed, law-and-order prosecutor. As a U.S. attorney in the District, he lobbied for tougher minimum sentences for drug offenders but later changed course on nonviolent criminals, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based group that calls for changing the sentencing system.


The black community’s relationship with the department has long been complicated. The distrust of law enforcement organizations was increased by the FBI, which for years harassed and spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


For criminal justice activists, a pressing concern has been sentencing disparities for convicts caught with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Possession of crack carries longer criminal penalties, and 80 percent of people prosecuted for crack offenses have been African American, according to the Sentencing Project. Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to end the sentencing disparity.


The sentence disparities have combined with social and economic factors to lead to the increasing number of African Americans in prison, a figure that has grown from 100,000 in 1954–the year of the Supreme Court’s seminal school desegregation case–to 900,000 today, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

“When we look at the prison system, it’s a much worse situation than we had seen before the rise of the modern-day civil rights movement,” said Mark Mauer, executive director of the group. “If current trends continue, one of every three black males today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. It is one in every six for Hispanic men.”


Holder seldom broaches the topic of race directly, but in a 1997 National Public Radio interview conducted soon after his appointment as the Justice Department’s second in command, he shared a quote by the late Samuel Proctor, a pastor in Harlem, that he carried in his wallet.

“It says that blackness is another issue entirely apart from class in America,” Holder said. “No matter how affluent, educated and mobile a black person becomes, his race defines him more particularly than anything else.”

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