WASHINGTON -- When Attorney General Loretta Lynch addressed the NAACP convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, she tried to thread a needle on the complex topic of race and policing that at times resulted in over-the-top allegations that frustrated her predecessor, Eric Holder. Lynch, who was confirmed in April, had signaled that she wanted to set a new tone for the Justice Department and boost the morale of police officers who may feel their profession is under attack.
Despite the fact that Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, spent most of his career in law enforcement or as a judge -- former President Ronald Reagan actually nominated him to the bench, where he spent years sentencing people who committed crimes in the District of Columbia to prison -- the former top law enforcement official in the United States often came under attack for being against the police.
A tweet from "Fox & Friends" a few months ago suggested that when Holder said it might be necessary to dismantle the Ferguson Police Department -- which was found to routinely abuse citizens -- what he meant was that someone should shoot two cops in Ferguson. Holder, whose brother is a former police officer, was also accused by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani of helping create an environment where two NYPD officers could be ambushed and killed. Former New York Gov. George Pataki said he was "sickened" by Holder's "divisive anti-cop rhetoric." Sen. Lindsey Graham said he blamed the shooter for the death of two officers, but said the rhetoric that Holder and Mayor Bill de Blasio were using "incites crazy people."
Yet a few months back, another top law enforcement official who was appointed by President Barack Obama gave a major speech on race, and didn't seem to receive the same type of criticism. FBI Director James Comey, who just like Holder has spent much of his career in law enforcement, said that throughout American history, law enforcement enforced "a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups" and said that today, many people in our "white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face."
Comey, a white Republican who has donated to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, said law enforcement officials "must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect -- by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency."
The Huffington Post asked Comey during a roundtable with reporters last week if he got any pushback from law enforcement after his speech suggesting that law enforcement in 2015 was still heavily impacted by racial biases.
"No," Comey said. "Literally none." We asked Comey why he believed Holder got more pushback than he did. "He's not as good a speaker as I am," Comey joked.
Holder, who recently re-joined the law firm of Covington & Burling, certainly took note of the disparity.
“Oh you noticed that, huh?” Holder asked when The Huffington Post questioned him during an interview last week about why he believed Comey had received no criticism for similar comments. “I was struck by that as well."
Holder said Comey "showed a lot of guts to say what he said, to say it in the way that he said it," and also complemented New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton for his speech on race and policing.
"I applaud them for being brutally honest about the nature of the problem that we confront. I was also struck by the fact that neither of them [got] the criticism that I received for saying very similar things," Holder said. "This goes to the political way in which certain people are viewed. It’s just kind of the nature of the system."
What Comey and Bratton said "are things that people in law enforcement and in our nation need to take to heart in order to build up the trust that must exist between law enforcement and communities of color," Holder said.
"These are man-made problems that are susceptible to man-made solutions, but it’s going to take that kind of tough honesty that they, and I, talked about," he added.
As for the criticism Holder received, the former attorney general called himself a "huge supporter of people in law enforcement" and said the suggestion that he wasn't supportive of police officers was "totally inconsistent with how I was raised, both professionally and personally, inconsistent with what I did as attorney general in coming up with ways in which we protected the lives of law enforcement -- when we had that spate of law enforcement killings -- and just the respect that I have for the men and women in blue."
"My career has been in law enforcement," Holder said. "When you raise tough issues within the family, some family members react very negatively. It was disappointing to me to be portrayed in that way, and it angered me also because, like I said, it was inconsistent with not only how I feel but inconsistent with what I did as attorney general."