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?
In fact, many of these problems are interrelated -- and they have virtually nothing to do with discrimination or racism.
Sure, many inner-city black children attend lousy schools that do a poor job of teaching them to read and write. But those school districts are often run by black superintendents in cities governed by black elected officials, not some modern-day incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. Nor is money the explanation. Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, for example, spend more to educate their largely black and Latino students than the surrounding suburbs do on their largely white student populations.
And poor educational performance turns into lower wages for black workers. Only 17 percent of blacks hold a college degree compared with a third of whites. Is it any wonder then that blacks earn, on average, only about 80 percent of what whites earn?
If Attorney General Holder is really interested in improving the status of blacks, he could begin by addressing the issue of personal responsibility. The decision to have a child out of wedlock has enormous consequences for single moms and the children they bring into the world. If there is one factor above others that explains the huge differences between the well-being of whites and blacks in this society, it is that so many black children grow up in homes with no fathers. Those children do more poorly in school, are more likely to get in trouble with the law, and become single parents themselves, thus perpetuating a destructive cycle of despair.
So, by all means, let's have some honesty in our discussions of race during Black History Month. Let's begin by having our most prominent black elected and appointed officials show a little courage by speaking out on the real problems in the black community, not the chimera of white oppression and unacknowledged guilt.