We're a nation of cowards -- or at least the attorney general of the United States thinks we are. In a speech at the Justice Department celebrating Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder said: "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." It seems a rather peculiar statement coming from the first black attorney general, moreover, one appointed by the first black man elected president.
Holder's complaint is that, "We, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race." But is that really what the country needs: an extended conversation on race? Bill Clinton proposed a similar idea back when he was in office. He called it a National Conversation on Race and hosted several town hall events around the country with lots of media hype. There was much finger-pointing -- at whites, of course -- and little serious analysis of the real challenges the black community faces.
The problem is not that we talk too little about race but that our discussion is often irrelevant to the problems at hand. When Holder and Clinton talk about confronting racial issues, what they really want is a national therapy session in which whites admit that their prejudice and discrimination -- past and present -- is responsible for all the ills that beset blacks today.
Well, sorry, it just isn't so. And if we're going to have an honest discussion about race, let's begin by defining the problem.
There are still large differences between whites and blacks in this society on everything from education to earnings to crime rates. But does racial discrimination explain why black high school graduates, on average, read four grade levels lower than whites? Is employment discrimination wholly to blame for the differences in average earnings between whites and blacks?
Is racism responsible for the fact that blacks are more likely than whites to be the victims of violent crimes? Then how do you explain that in 2005, according to Holder's own Department of Justice, black males between the ages of 14-24 represented only 1 percent of the population but committed almost 28 percent of homicides, and their victims were overwhelmingly other blacks?
How about out-of-wedlock birth rates? Does racial discrimination explain why 70 percent of black children are born to single women, compared with 25 percent of white children?
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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