Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in the St. Louis area Wednesday to tour a community roiled by the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen – nine months after he had visited the same city to tout new initiatives aimed at keeping poor black men out of prison.
Long before the white-hot spotlight of the racially charged protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Holder had been intent on reforming an American criminal justice system that he said imposed “shameful” disparities on minority communities. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 has thrust Holder, 63, into the heart of a national debate over racial justice that he has aimed to make part of his legacy.
In meetings with residents, Holder shared his own stories of being pulled over and accosted by police while growing up in New York City – and of being skeptical of police even while serving as a federal prosecutor in Washington.
“I understand that mistrust. I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man,” Holder said during an appearance at Florissant Valley Community College. “I think about my time in Georgetown – a nice neighborhood of Washington – and I am running to a picture movie at about 8 o’clock at night. I am running with my cousin. Police car comes driving up, flashes his lights, yells ‘where you going? Hold it!’ I say, ‘Whoa, I’m going to a movie.’”
For Holder, Ferguson has been another example of his penchant to go further and say more on racial issues than President Barack Obama is politically willing or able to do, particularly in giving voice to the anger in black communities over racial bias. Over the past 12 days, the nation’s first African-American attorney general has sounded sharper and more personal notes of frustration and anger than the president – a trait that has marked his 5 1/2 years in office.
Holder’s presence in the St. Louis suburb showed again his ability, and willingness, to take the debate over race to places the president feels unable to go. He also met on Wednesday with Brown’s parents, law enforcement officials, elected leaders and students at a local community college.
“We told him if you drive a humpty down Clayton Road, you will get stopped more likely than if you were in a Mercedes,” said Bradley Rayford, 22, chief executive officer of the community college’s student government, referring to a beat-up car. “He actually listened.”
Holder emphasized that the issues raised by Brown’s shooting “predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”
However, the nightly clashes also have vividly illustrated just how far Holder’s Justice Department has to go to address the undertones of racial mistrust in the criminal justice system – and how much the black community yearns to hear Obama speak with the same force and passion.
Holder, who announced a federal civil rights probe into Brown’s death last week, informed Obama of his plans to visit Ferguson during a meeting at the White House on Monday. In a news conference a few hours later, Obama was asked why he was not visiting the community. The president responded that he had to be careful not to “look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales” of justice.
Some African-American leaders interpreted the contrasting approaches as a consequence of the limitations of the president’s role as commander in chief. At times when he has weighed in publicly on racially sensitive debates, Obama’s remarks have been politicized and had the effect of hardening the country’s racial divide.
Yet some who have spoken with both men said there are clear differences in their backgrounds that has shaped their perceptions of how to address race. A decade older than the 53-year-old Obama, Holder grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., and he participated in student protests at Columbia University in the late 1960s.
“The most important difference between them is Holder’s relationship to the heyday of the civil rights movement,” said Benjamin Jealous, 41, who served as NAACP president from 2008-2013. “Certainly, when you’re making a decision when you’re young to take risks in the name of justice and fairness, it has an impact on your person that lasts.”
Holder’s outspokenness on race began in the earliest days of the Obama presidency when the attorney general, during a Black History Month speech at the Justice Department in February 2009, declared that Americans wrongly considered the United States a melting pot.
“In things racial, we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder said, a statement that shocked the White House and prompted Obama aides to try to limit his public appearances, according to a story in Politico Magazine.
Obama has spoken at length about race – most famously during his 2008 campaign when he delivered a long address after reports over the inflammatory statements of his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The president also delivered a 20-minute statement in July 2013 after a Florida jury acquitted a Hispanic man in the slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen shot to death in 2012.
With Holder, Obama has started to build a legacy around criminal justice issues. They have taken steps to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and have spoken out for changes to protect voting rights for poorer, minority communities.
Holder’s visit to St. Louis in Nov. 2013 was part of his effort to promote a series of new Justice Department initiatives, including federal substance abuse treatment for low-level offenders in lieu of jail time.
“Obama is now concerned about his legacy and, like it or not, it will be about race,” said Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law School who worked at the Justice Department and attended Harvard Law School with first lady Michelle Obama.
“If his legacy was like a newsreel,” Butler continued, “it might have images of black folks in Harlem dancing when he was elected, and the last image might be black folks protesting in Ferguson like it was the 1960s. He doesn’t want that to be the last image of race. He will have to do something new, and the attorney general will have to advise him.”
On the whole, Holder’s tenure as the nation’s first black attorney general has been rocky. House Republicans have called for his removal over scandals related to a botched gun-trafficking investigation in Arizona and his oversight of an investigation of national security data leaked to reporters.
But he has held on, in part because of his close friendship with Obama and White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. Holder regularly schedules his summer vacation to coincide with Obama’s on Martha’s Vineyard, and they had dinner together there last week as the protests escalated in Ferguson.
Obama and Holder reportedly were planning to discuss the attorney general’s future, with some insiders at the Justice Department speculating that Holder was interested in leaving by the end of the year.
But the two never got to have that conversation, as the breaking events in Ferguson took precedence.
Washington Post staff writer DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.