It was two years ago at a Black History Month celebration that Attorney General Eric Holder observed that we live in a “nation of cowards” unwilling to have an honest conversation about race. Holder’s remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who felt his comments painted America in a negative light. But was Holder right?
In recent months, we have been reminded that American history is all too often the subject of revisionist interpretations that whitewash the nation’s past to score political points. These insults on our historical consciousness are far too easy to cite.
Take for instance a January speech by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to Iowans for Tax Relief, during which she declared that America was always a resting place for people of all colors. “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status,” she said.
Ignoring the plight of black slaves who first arrived in 1619 — more than 100 years prior to the founding of America — and the enduring fight for racial justice, Bachmann went on to say that the nation’s founding fathers were ardent abolitionists. “The very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” said Bachmann. While the founding fathers professed that “all men are created equal,” that sentiment did not apply to the slaves many of them owned.
Interestingly, when the Republican leadership decided that members of the House of Representatives would read the Constitution as the first major act of the new Congress, the sections on slavery, including the one that indicated slaves were only three-fifths of a man, were conveniently left out of the reading.
And in December, presidential hopeful and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in an interview with The Weekly Standard praised his hometown’s White Citizen Council for their support of integration. This is the same White Citizens Council movement that has long been on record as a white supremacist organization and known for launching campaigns throughout the South to intimidate blacks who were active in the civil rights movement. Barbour, in the same interview, appeared to not comprehend the injustices that led to the struggle for equality. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said.
There has been no shortage of examples of the cowardice that Attorney General Holder referred to a few years ago. But these convenient errors and omissions should not be taken lightly. It may be easier and far less uncomfortable for some to rewrite history than deal with the reality that the nation has struggled with living up to its ideals. But we do ourselves and future generations no favors when we pretend that an entire segment of our population was never denied basic human rights or the chance to fully participate in society.
As Holder noted in his speech, “if we’re going to ever make progress, we have to be honest with each other.”
Judy Lubin is a writer, communications strategist and Ph.D. student in sociology. She writes about the intersection of race, class and gender in the media and in politics on her blog LeadingVoices.org and on The Huffington Post.