In a rare move, Attorney General Eric Holder took direct aim at U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts on issues of race during a commencement speech Saturday.
“Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted,” Holder said, speaking at the historically black Morgan State University. “In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.”
Holder was referring to the Bush-appointed justice’s famous quote from a 2007 ruling: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The attorney general referenced the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding Michigan’s ban on race-conscious admissions policies in public education or employment, in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent against the 6-2 opinion and also criticized the frequently-quoted line from Roberts.
“As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case – we must not ‘wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. …The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race,'” Holder said.
The attorney general’s message was that institutional racism endures in the U.S. criminal justice system, something he called “shameful and unacceptable.” He said the more subtle forms of racism “perpetuate cycles of poverty, crime, and incarceration that trap individuals, destroy communities, and decimate minority neighborhoods.”
The remarks came on the 60th anniversary of the Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared state-based school segregation unconstitutional. Holder is leading the Obama administration’s recent efforts to expand its clemency program and ease marijuana policies.