“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."
Wasn't that long ago that Attorney General Eric Holder sparked a media blitz for declaring in a race speech during black history month (and shortly after being confirmed as the nation's first black attorney general) that America is a "nation of cowards" on matters of race. Considering that the country was still giddy to the point of hysteria over Barack Obama's historic election and black folks in particular were more optimism about race relations than ever before, Holder's was a rather bold and impolitic statement.
Predictably, folks on the left and right were calling for his head. How dare he rain on the parade of our country's most definitive public statement to date that we are indeed a colorblind society? Surely, a nation of cowards wouldn't have elected a black president or sanctioned his appointment as the first black attorney general. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times states flat out called the brotha a hypocrite. Save your lectures on race, she responded indignantly in an widely read op-ed piece.
As for Obama who is hardly blind to the realities of racial polities, if hamstrung to a large degree by his political office, he dodged the issue like a jedi warrior for weeks. When he could dodge no longer, he offered a mild rebuke of Holder's comments via the New York Times. Race talk, he opined, was not the answer; ending economic hardship for all Americans was. In other words, Holder spoke out of turn. That Holder got the message has been largely reflected in his conspicuous silence on matters of race.
Holder's silence aside, what we see now in the wake of Arizona's recent draconian laws, one of which virtually legalizes racial profiling and the another which abhorrently tags ethnic studies as racist and outlaws its teaching in secondary education, is that Holder's assessment of our racial state of affairs was right on the mark.
This came immediately to mind the other day as I passed a newly constructed billboard on the highway that read, "America. Love it or leave it." Though I've heard this saying more times that I carry to recount, it struck me as being particularly appropriate to the current racial climate. Though xenophobia has, in one way or another, informed and contaminated social politics and policy in the U.S. for some time, the impending reality that we are quickly becoming a majority-minority nation is starting to hit home for many and fueling a particularly nasty form of xenophobia that threatens to collapse in on us all.
As for being cowardly on matters of race, creating a convenient scapegoat in Latino/as immigrants stands atop the list. There's no debating that the federal government has, time and again, dropped the ball on enacting comprehensive and humane immigration reform. That something needs to be done and fast should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see.
Writer-humorist Zora Neale Hurston once famously said that she would die for this country but not lie for it. Encapsulated in her pronouncement is the true stuff of productive patriotism. Rather than hide or camouflage our social maladies, we should aggressively expose and seek to correct them. Rather than love it or leave it, we should be asserting "improve it or risk losing it." Fear-mongering on issues of race not only divides us, but it makes us shortsighted and weak. The true test of our melting pot experiment in America is upon us, whether we can pass it or not remains to be seen.