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Earth To Eric Holder

I like Eric Holder. And, no, despite what Peter Wehner wrote in today's Contentions, Holder is not responsible for the pardon given Marc Rich in the late dusk of the Clinton administration. This was Bill Clinton's smarmy move, and his alone.

But I, too, am mystified by Holder's remarks, reported by the Associated Press and CNN today, basically denying the progress that Americans have made in their relentless and ongoing march to racial equality. Here is one snippet (and it is not a distorting snippet) of what Holder actually said: "we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." That is, "a nation of cowards" on racial matters. Or another snippet: "On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009, does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago." The "in too many ways" in my first citation and the "in some ways" in my second are attempts at protective hedging.  But they hedge nothing.

Holder was eight years old half a century ago. The desegregation of schools had barely begun. The "dream" of Martin Luther King, Jr. was still ringing in the people's ears and he had only recently been murdered. Black men and women did not figure in our national politics. Black teenagers did not then reasonably aspire to do well at school -the odds were against them--or hope to graduate, as Holder did, from Columbia University (as Barack Obama also did) and from the Columbia Law School. There were no black generals or managing partners of law firms or presidents of the best institutions of higher learning or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and not many black people at all in the solid middle class. And almost none in the upper middle class. How many blacks were actually rich or even super-rich? No, America is not racial paradise. But it is more integrated, much more integrated than Great Britain and France which used to disdain our bigoted traditions and habits. No longer, believe me, no longer.

But since Eric Holder has laid down a challenge of honesty I'm willing to play by whatever serious rules he puts down. Still, I want to pose two queries to him.

One is about multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism was a program set down for all Americans by black intellectuals, black activists and their white allies. It has been a success, at least among younger whites who listen to (and play) black music, read black novelists and poets, hang black art in their apartments, study black history, dress according to black fashion. When was the last time you saw an African American in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Or at a classical music concert at Carnegie Hall? If we're being honest let's address this issue.

The second is more serious. It is the relative paucity of black undergraduates and graduate students in the fields of mathematics, the life sciences and the hard sciences. I am not raising the issue of intrinsic intellectual proclivities. No, not at all. In fact, I have been concerned--like the old SNCC activist Bob Moses--for the whole half century that Holder evokes with this matter. The sciences are the key to upward mobility. Look at how the expansive world of computers has precisely expanded the economic and intellectual life of millions of people. Why are young African Americans not in the universe of the sciences? Who is responsible? Who will take up the cause?

The tremendous black presence in the White House and elsewhere in Washington is an exhilarating development. I'm willing to look at everything. I hope my friend Eric Holder is too?

I am not bragging. But I thought you might care to know that I am a recipient of the W.E.B. DuBois Medal (2000).