Friday, February 20, 2009

Eric Holder Pardon My Prejudice

Barack Obama's appointee US Attorney General Eric Holder threw down the gauntlet of challenge to the latest generation of Americans about our racist society:

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

This amazing statement was a matter of simple truth, yet so many pundits, politicians, and "experts" found it controversial and alienating.

Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, praised Holder’s general message but said the wording of the speech may alienate some. “He’s right on the substance, but that’s probably not the most politic way of saying it. I’m certain there are people who
will hear him and say, ’That’s obnoxious,”’ he said, adding that what was missing from Holder’s speech were specific examples of what painful subjects need to be addressed.

Picky picky--Holder's message was simple and provocative: " get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul." As a Jew I could say yeah, but what about the Jews? Or as a champion of immigration rights, I could say, you left out the Mexicans. But that wasn't Holder's point. It was way more basic:

"Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

I know exactly what Holder means, because I wrote a book about it several years ago, "Pardon My Prejudice: America's Excuse for Bigotry." No it hasn't been published, and yes it's a book whose time has arrived. The book's ironic title refers exactly to what Holder is talking about:

"...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."

The title "Pardon My prejudice" comes from my experience in retail where all sorts of average Americans walk through your life every day. I owned a store that rented videos among other things, and one night a gentleman and his wife came in to find a movie to watch. I had seen this man on other visits--a friendly older family guy who just wanted to pass the time and get his movie rental. At one point, one of my clerks, a young woman, asked if he would like to see a certain movie. The film had an interracial cast, and he said he didn't want it because of the--he used the "n" word--in it. The clerk was non-plussed. She had heard this sort of talk before. But it was an open and rude remark. The man's wife overheard the comment, and since she was unsure if her husband's obnoxious language would cause a problem, she approached my clerk to smooth things over. She said, "You'll have to pardon my husband--he's a bit of a racist."

This silly excuse was so bizarre, that's why my clerk wanted to tell me the story later. I had a habit of escorting customers out of the store who spoke out of line like that, so since I wasn't there at the time, I learned about the conversation from my clerk.

Now, with Holder's speech, it makes sense that this issue is not just confronting me, but it is in the psyche of our habits as a society. That's another reason Holder's remarks ring so true to me, as a child of the fifties and seeing first-hand the "breaking news" of the civil rights struggle, when he says,

"it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated."

My book is about experiences of prejudice and bigotry around us every day. It is not meant to point fingers of blame or judgment. I mean to remind us all of how much we see ans hear this mindless hatred all the time, and how little we react to it. Again, Holder's comments summon us to the call:

"Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race-protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made."

There is a solution, and it doesn't lie in complacency and inaction. We have to come to grips with the irrationality of our prejudices and beliefs about our fellow human beings. We have to stop fearing those who are not just like us, who have different beliefs, looks, even goals. Until we Americans understand that what made this country great, as a melting pot, is being crushed into the sand of ignorance and bigotry, we will never get out of our rut of hatred, fear, and economic deprivance. Those who understand what Holder was saying, will lead us all into a new light of tolerance, and prosperity.

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