Eric Holder: Systemic, Subtle Racism Is Much More Damaging Than High-Profile Rants

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 01:  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office for th
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 01: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Souther District of New York on April 1, 2014 in New York City. Holder spoke alongside U.S. Attorney for the South District of New York, Preet Bharara, about the prosecution of Osama Bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghayth. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Racist rants are much less of a threat to equality than the more subtle, everyday racism of the criminal justice system, Attorney General Eric Holder said Saturday at a commencement speech at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore.

In a reference to recent remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, Holder said that the country has seen "occasional, jarring reminders of the discrimination -- and the isolated, repugnant, racist views" that have "rightly been condemned by leaders, commentators and citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life." He continued:

But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents -- on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter -- we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.

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. 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.

Nor does the greatest threat to equal opportunity any longer reside in overtly discriminatory statutes like the "separate but equal" laws of 60 years ago. Since the era of Brown [v. Board of Education], laws making classifications based on race have been subjected to a legal standard known as "strict scrutiny." Almost invariably, these statutes, when tested, fail to pass constitutional muster. But there are policies that too easily escape such scrutiny because they have the appearance of being race-neutral. Their impacts, however, are anything but. This is the concern we must contend with today: policies that impede equal opportunity in fact, if not in form.

Codified segregation of public schools has been barred since Brown. But in too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred -- including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.

There are other examples.

For instance, in our criminal justice system, systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common. One study released last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission indicated that in recent years, African-American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Another report showed that American Indians are often sentenced even more harshly. The Justice Department is examining these and other disparities as we speak and taking a variety of steps to ensure fair sentences that match the conduct at issue in individual cases. Like a growing chorus of lawmakers across the political spectrum, we recognize that disparate outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable -- they impede our ability to see that justice is done. And they perpetuate cycles of poverty, crime, and incarceration that trap individuals, destroy communities and decimate minority neighborhoods.

And until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, African-Americans' right to the franchise was aggressively restricted based solely on race. Today, such overt measures cannot survive. Yet in too many jurisdictions, new types of restrictions are justified as attempts to curb an epidemic of voter fraud that, in reality, has never been shown to exist. Rather than addressing a supposedly widespread problem, these policies disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans, Hispanics, other communities of color and vulnerable populations such as the elderly. But interfering with or depriving a person of the right to vote should never be a political aim. It is a moral failing.

In recent years, thousands of Americans, the pride of our nation, have given their lives -- and deal even today with the scars of war -- so that hopeful, striving people who live continents away could proudly hold up their purple fingers after voting in a truly democratic process. America is now 50 years from Freedom Summer. And we must not countenance, within our own borders, practices that would make it difficult or impossible to exercise the right for which so many have given so much.

This is the work that truly matters -- because policies that disenfranchise specific groups are more pernicious than hateful rants. Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise. And a criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently -- and punishes them unequally -- has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand.

Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn't need to be actively confronted. In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute.

And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case, we must not "wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. ... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race."



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