Associate Professor Prudence Layne writes in regional newspapers about the legacy of outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his role in addressing racial inequalities in the United States.
The following column appeared recently in the Roanoke (Va.) Times, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and the Henderson Dispatch via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.
Eric Holder: Unpopular for all the right reasons
By Prudence Layne – firstname.lastname@example.org
When the first African-American president of the United States appoints the first African-American attorney general in a nation where African Americans comprise nearly half of the prison population, the ironies cannot be avoided.
How have blacks, especially black men, fared amidst a heightened rhetoric of colorblindness, post-racialism and the history-making “first” that outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment represents? Not terribly well, it seems. As author and activist Michelle Alexander points out, more black men are in prison or jail in the United States, or under probation or parole supervision, than were enslaved the decade before the start of the Civil War.
Racial disparities are not the only thing wrong with the world’s largest prison industrial complex. More than 2.4 million people flood our prisons. In excess of 70,000 children and adolescents are in juvenile detention. And more than 58 percent of incarcerated women are locked up for nonviolent drug offenses.
No other nation in the world incarcerates more of its citizens than the United States. Not China. Not Russia. Not Iran. Who wouldn’t cower in the face of staggering statistics such as these?
Under the weight of what he acknowledged is a broken system, Holder began the work of trying to correct some of these maladies. He contextualized the criminal justice system within the scope of its related scourges, including unemployment, underemployment, poverty, poor education and drug addiction.
“One of the things I learned is that you’ve got to deal with the underlying social problems if you want to have an impact on crime,” Holder said in a 2012 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s not a coincidence that you see the greatest amount of violent crime where you see the greatest amount of social dysfunction.”
Holder has spent part of his tenure attempting to reform sentencing laws. A sad irony is that mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and other legislation allow many nonviolent offenders, mainly people of color, to face years in prison while mostly white men and state governments now profit from the sale of the same drugs for which others remain locked away.
Black lives have more value than the bag of Skittles, the handful of cigars, the toy gun and the bottle of iced tea that have symbolized the most heartbreaking encounters between law enforcement and black male citizens. The culture of fear around black people in the United States that makes people lock their car doors, hold their breaths in elevators, clutch their purses and wallets tighter and cross the street if the black brother isn’t ‘whistling Vivaldi’ tells us that long-held myths continue to threaten our everyday interactions.
Holder broke barriers and battled stereotypes. He demanded that the public and law enforcement examine their interactions and relationships with each other. He reminded us that community policing, the demilitarization of police forces, a greater commitment to diversity within those forces, and a re-examination of police academy curricula must top the agenda of this long battle in which more of us need to be engaged.
Though some deemed it “inappropriate,” Holder’s recent visit to Ferguson, Missouri, helped calm tensions following the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager days away from beginning college. His influence must not go unappreciated.
After entanglements with the press and Congress, alleged White House dissatisfaction with his performance, controversial mishandlings of the “Fast and Furious” program and other unilateral decisions for which he has been vilified, the weight of the criticism and battles against which Holder has fought makes his late September resignation announcement appear less dramatic and surprising.
History will judge his proficiency at handling the “top cop” job, a position that may not be the ultimate platform from which he can most effectively utilize his influence to advocate justice and racial equality for people of color in their encounters with our criminal justice system. Yet his transition from former prosecutor and Superior Court judge to defender of justice and advocate of civil rights embodies the change that is possible for all of us.
Love him or hate him, Holder makes us confront the ugly truths about the long history of violence and hatred perpetrated against people of color and the poor in the United States. If we work in concert to lift the hood on what we so casually choose to ignore, a criminal justice system that cries out for change and the lives that depend on it, we may progress toward our more perfect union.
If nothing else, Eric Holder has taught us that much.
Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English and coordinator of the African and African-American Studies program at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (email@example.com) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.