Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, in his most recent book, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, advocates a form of racial citizenship in which choice is always an element; “all Negroes should be voluntary Negroes,” he writes. (Kennedy’s use of the term “Negro” is, of course, a sign of intellectual independence that Holder is not likely to appreciate.) What a novel and welcome thought: racial identity as a choice. The U.S. census may put us in racial and ethnic boxes, but we are free to reject those categories, and meet our friends and neighbors on the basis of friendship, with no racial obsession dividing us.
Holder asks us to imagine “situations where people — regardless of skin color — could confront racial issues freely and without fear.” Okay, but even Bill Cosby might find that hard to imagine today, now that he’s been almost banished from the civil-rights community for his talk about black responsibility. In “confronting racial issues,” what would the attorney general like to hear us say? Surely the point of such a confrontation is to arrive at a common understanding about — what?
He claims to want a “nuanced, principled, and spirited” conversation about racial preferences — a.k.a., affirmative action. That principled and nuanced discussion is taking place, but it’s too spirited for Holder, who maligns as “extremist” the views of those who are leading the conversation — people like Richard Sander of the UCLA law school, Tom Sowell, and Ward Connerly. Their views are those of the majority of Americans — and are we to consider these men “unprincipled”?
It’s not obvious that there is value in a “dialogue” about race of the sort that Holder imagines. Yes, conversations are nice — about the Academy Awards, the NBA, the price of gas, our economic worries, the elderly parents we take care of, the resolutions we’ve made to get more exercise, or our love for junk food. But we don’t need Holder’s version of a conversation. The last thing Americans need is more race chatter. It doesn’t bring us together; it separates us. And, in any case, our record on race in recent decades has been one of courage, not cowardice.
Abigail Thernstrom is the co-author with Stephan Thernstrom of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. She is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.