Published: March 7, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama has chided his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., for describing America as a “nation of cowards” when discussing race, wading into a tumult that flared over Mr. Holder’s indictment of the way this country talks about ethnicity.
“I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language,” Mr. Obama said in a mild rebuke from America’s first black president to its first black attorney general.
In an interview with The New York Times on Friday, the president said that despite Mr. Holder’s choice of words, he had a point.
“We’re oftentimes uncomfortable with talking about race until there’s some sort of racial flare-up or conflict,” he said, adding, “We could probably be more constructive in facing up to sort of the painful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination.”
Mr. Holder made his comments last month during an address to employees at the Justice Department, saying that “though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards.”
His remarks ignited protest, particularly from conservatives. One post, by Stephan Tawney on the American Pundit blog, said that “our attorney general is black, both major parties are led by black men, the president is black.”
“And yet,” Mr. Tawney wrote, “we’re apparently a ‘nation of cowards’ on race.”
Mr. Obama was asked whether he agreed with Mr. Holder. He hesitated for five seconds before responding.
“I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions,” Mr. Obama said. “I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care, ensuring that every kid is learning out there. I think if we do that, then we’ll probably have more fruitful conversations.”