Attorney General's Remarks Ignite Debate Over Race Relations

Attorney General Eric Holder may have gone too far when he called the U.S. a "nation of cowards" during a speech at the Justice Department marking Black History Month, say some political observers who say such language could drive race relations in the wrong direction.

The remarks by the country's first black attorney general may have ripped open a scab that President Obama's election and much of his rhetoric had built on top of long-running wounds, they say. 

"Well. it seems to me that it is off-message," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, a multi-racial network of organizations that try to promote racial harmony and oppose all forms of bigotry. "I don't think Barack Obama believes that or would say that. Obama has been saying there is one America, one race, the human race."

But others say he is doing what is expected -- addressing an issue that Obama's election has enabled to be discussed.

"This nation still is hypersensitive no matter what part of the spectrum you're on when it comes to the issue of race in this country," said April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks.

Ryan added that Holder said his department would help bridge the racial divide, noting that former President Clinton couldn't hold his race initiative until his second term because it was considered a third rail.

Obama was forced to address the racial wounds of this country head-on during his presidential campaign last year when controversy erupted over the inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who blamed the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America's history of racial oppression.

Obama said in what he deemed a major speech on race that mutual racial resentments remain over the legacy of slavery and affirmative action, but that progress in race relations had been achieved.

He urged the nation to break "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years" and bemoaned the "chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

Holder cited that speech by Obama as part of the motivation for his words Wednesday, saying Americans need to overcome an ingrained inhibition against talking about race.

Race, Holder said, "is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable. ... If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

In his speech, Holder urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for honest discussion of racial matters, including issues of health care, education and economic disparities. He also used more blunt language.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for Holder, said later the attorney general used "provocative words to be clear that Americans of all races should stop avoiding the difficult issues of race."

Meyers said Holder's speech signals to him "that this attorney general is profoundly left in the dark and in the past about race." 

"Race ain't what it used to be in America. We've changed. We have the first African American president and the first African American attorney general. Wake up, Mr. Holder! Wake up!" Meyers said.

But FOX News contributor Juan Williams said he understood what Holder was saying when he said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate on the weekends and in their private lives.

Echoing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Williams said the 11:00 hour on Sundays in church is the most segregated hour during the country's week.

"Even our best colleges," Williams said. "How come all the Asian kids are here, the black kids are here, the Jewish kids are there? They live in a self-enforced segregation and I think he's saying we need to have more conversation, more honestly about that kind of racial separation."

Williams added that Holder is signaling that he will use his position to address concerns about the diminution of the civil rights division in his department.

"I think what he was saying is the civil rights division is going to be vigilant in making sure we don't have a situation where there is discrimination taking place and law enforcement is turning a blind eye."