From his first days on the job, it was clear that Attorney General Eric Holder was unbound by the racial constraints that his boss, President Obama, operated under.
Just weeks after America saw the inauguration of its first black president, Holder gave what has come to be known as his "cowards speech" -- an address that crystallized the now-outgoing attorney general's place as Obama's man/conscience/inner voice on race (the boldface is mine):
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. 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. It is an issue we have never been at ease with, and given our nation’s history, this is in some ways understandable. And yet, 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.
Publicly, Obama moved to separate himself from the comments, saying that if he had been advising Holder, "we would have used different language." And in discussing race, Obama has often used different language, or even none at all. Holder, who grew up blocks away from Malcolm X, was the dystopic realist. Obama, who during his first term discussed race in executive orders and speeches less than any other president since 1961, was mostly hope-and-change, appealing to "our better angels." (He rose to fame by declaring there wasn't a white America or a black America.) After Obama stumbled and called out a white police officer for arresting African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home, an All-American beer summit was in order. No hard feelings, right guys?
But even with Obama's silence, and in some ways because of it, Holder has always been up to something else -- both rhetorically and judicially. He has been Obama's go-to man on race, bolstering the civil rights division, unafraid to point to racial disparities. He moved to reform the "mandatory minimum" federal sentencing drug laws, which disproportionately impacted minorities. He sued Alabama over voter identification laws, in a case he ultimately lost in the Supreme Court even as he vowed to keep fighting that fight. Holder also made the case that states should repeal laws prohibiting felons from voting, and he spoke out against so-called "stand your ground" laws after Trayvon Martin's death. As Ferguson, Mo., erupted this summer, it was Holder who met with residents and activists on the ground, recounting his own experiences with racial profiling.
To conservatives, he has been an Obama stand-in, a lightning rod who was slapped with a contempt charge for the "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal. And in his testimony before House committees, he clearly relished the interplay, demanding respect as an indignant black man, clearly taken aback by his treatment.
He made that especially plain at one hearing, saying: "I don't think I've been always treated with respect. You may not like me, but I am the attorney general."
Holder tangled at a different hearing with Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.), who said that Holder was too casual about being held in contempt of Congress. Holder quickly pushed back; "You don't want to go there, buddy," he said. "You don't want to go there, OK?"
But it didn't stop there. The tension continued, with Holder jabbing at Gohmert at a later hearing. Gohmert quipped that "the attorney general will not cast aspersions on my asparagus." "Good luck with your asparagus," Holder said with nary a hint of humor.
Holder's anger was, at times, palpable, and the image of the nation's highest law enforcement official -- a black man -- being questioned by a white Southern lawmaker with a thick accent was freighted with history. It evoked those black men from another time, clad in topcoats and fedoras, marching with "I am a man" signs.
And Holder, at a National Action Network conference later, nodded to that history, even as he tried to say it wasn't about him (again, the boldface is mine):
The last five years have been defined by significant strides and by lasting reforms even in the face, even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity. If you don’t believe that, you look at the way -- forget about me, forget about me -- you look at the way the Attorney General of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee -- has nothing to do with me, forget that. What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?
For Obama, Holder has been a link to the civil rights community and that tradition of black protest and righteous anger. In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Michael Brown's grandfather, Lesley McSpadden, in an interview on MSNBC, questioned Obama's cautious approach to matter, saying: "Now is the time for my president to step forward. ...I want to say this to my president: I voted for you, so you ought to be able to vent with me."
For the last six years, Holder has been the answer to that plea.
Who will answer it now?