Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. urged employees yesterday to take advantage of Black History Month to begin a dialogue about race, labeling the United States a "nation of cowards" for not discussing the country's checkered history openly.
Holder, the first African American to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer, said that Justice Department workers have a special responsibility to acknowledge social limits and to push past them.
The department's civil rights division, which came to being half a century ago to help the Freedom Riders and students seeking to integrate public schools, more recently has been the target of criticism from Democrats who say it has lost its way.
Holder told employees that the level of social interaction among people of different races is "bleak" and that it in many ways does not "differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago."
Demographic changes that within decades will result in no single racial majority only underscore the need for openness and, in some cases, confrontation on issues that separate people, Holder said.
He added: "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about racial matters that continue to divide us."