Skip to main content

Why Holder remark made white people mad

By Dorothy A. Brown
updated 5:18 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Attorney General Eric Holder said "racial animus" in part drives opposition to Obama
  • Dorothy Brown: For saying what a black man is thinking about race, Holder's now being vilified
  • Brown: His remarks were mild, not shocking; whites too rarely get perspectives of blacks
  • Brown: It's not often that someone with Holder's point of view has national platform

Editor's note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University's School of Law and author of "Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems."

(CNN) -- On ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who happens to be black, suggested that opposition to him and President Barack Obama in part is due to racial animus. For that, he has been vilified.

He has been accused of trying to scare people to the polls (as if listening to the evening news wouldn't already do that), stoking racial divisions and throwing down the race card. And he is asked rhetorically "is it possible to oppose Obama and not be a racist?"

The response to the attorney general's words has been very heated, and there is an obvious explanation.

"This Week" allowed many whites to hear what a black man is thinking about race. Most whites don't know because most whites don't have interracial conversations about race. To be fair, neither do most blacks. It's just that we know what other blacks are thinking because, well, we talk to other blacks about race.

Dorothy A. Brown
Dorothy A. Brown

"This Week" allowed a window into the thinking about race from a black person's perspective. That is unusual, given the dearth of guests of color on shows such as "This Week."

If anything, this points out the need for white America to hear more voices from people of color. But if you look at Holder's actual words, there really isn't anything surprising, or especially bold, in what he said.

He said: "There's a certain racial component to this for some people. I don't think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some, there's a racial animus."

Let's review: He said "I don't think this is the thing that is a main driver," but it is as if when certain whites hear the word race (or a derivative) as the explanation for any part of an event, they go situationally deaf.

Poll after poll shows how blacks and whites view our country through different lenses. Consider a recent Gallup poll that asked whether the justice system was biased against blacks. While 69% of whites answered no, 68% of blacks answered yes.

How does this happen?

Because by and large when talking about race in America, whites have conversations with other whites and blacks have conversations with other blacks. What Holder said is very different from what whites who don't talk to blacks generally hear. As I tell my students when I teach about race and the law, I note that important breakthroughs on race can only come when you have a conversation with someone who doesn't look like you and doesn't think like you.

But this is not a level playing field. Blacks and whites can look at the same event and come up with completely different perceptions.

When a black person says this is about race, many whites say we're playing the race card. But when a white person says this has nothing to do with race, rarely does he or she ever get called on it. In this case, Holder, a black man, very gently said race could ... maybe... possibly have something to do with a piece of it, and look at what happened.

President Obama gets personal on race
Pres. Obama's remarks on race
Analysis: Race in Obamacare debate

Let's take a few examples that to me show unprecedented hostility directed toward the President, in my opinion, because he is black.

First, the utter nonsense about the President's birth certificate; it refuses to die -- it is actively kept alive -- despite all the evidence to the contrary. Second, the number of pictures or posters at rallies with the President's face on a monkey's body. Third, Congressman Joe Wilson yells "you lie" during the President's State of the Union Address.

If anything, Holder was too tepid in his analysis, but I'm sure that's a function of his knowing that whenever he says anything about race, he gets pummeled.

The real lesson for me is the paucity of guests with the same views as Holder who are given a national platform the way that he was.

If week after week, on issue after issue, blacks were invited on as guests and allowed to inform the discussion, after a while, there would be fewer and fewer instances of situational deafness.

Whites would come to understand that there is more than one way of looking at something -- especially when it comes to race -- and when it comes to race, would not ignore the expertise that lies in black voices.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT