Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder just couldn’t help himself.
With his time as the nation’s chief law enforcement official coming to a close, Holder reflected on one of his deepest regrets: Failing to deliver civil rights charges for the variety of figures embroiled in racial controversies over the course of his tenure.
When a Florida jury failed to convict George Zimmerman for his role in the death of Trayvon Martin, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation to determine whether Zimmerman had violated Martin’s civil rights. It was a response to the outrage displayed by those who were invested in Zimmerman’s guilt, the facts be damned. This week, the DOJ revealed that insufficient evidence existed to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations. Holder’s response to this development, apparently, is to lament the fact that the burden of proof required to impose criminal charges on American citizens after they have been exonerated by a jury is just too high.
“I think some serious consideration needs to be given to the standard of proof that has to be met before federal involvement is appropriate, and that’s something that I am going to be talking about before I leave office,” Holder said.
It makes sense that this would be a priority for Holder. He’s written a lot of checks to Democratic base supporters regarding civil rights charges that look set to bounce. From cases that have curious outcomes that merit further investigation, like the death of Eric Garner following a confrontation with New York City police, to relatively clear-cut incidents like shooting death of the Missouri teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, Holder has pledged to review whether justice has truly been served.
“Although federal civil rights law imposes a high legal bar in these types of cases, we have resisted forming premature conclusions,” Holder said in November of last year while announcing an investigation into Officer Darren Wilson. Apparently, he’s given up on reserving judgment.
But lowering the bar for retributive justice in the United States is not the only legacy Holder hopes to secure. He is also standing by the fact that he, the nation’s most powerful law enforcement official, and Barack Obama, the President of the United States, are victims of persistent racial discrimination.
In a lengthy discussion ranging from his own exposure to the civil rights movement of the ’60s to today’s controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Holder also acknowledged that he felt some of his own struggles with Republicans in Congress during his six years in office were driven partly by race.
“There have been times when I thought that’s at least a piece of it,” Holder said, adding that “I think that the primary motivator has probably been political in nature … [but] you can’t let it deflect you from … your eyes on the prize.”
In August, when Holder was tapped by the administration to head to Ferguson to defuse some of the racially-charged tensions that erupted following Brown’s death, I noted how inappropriate it was for the White House to draft Holder into the role of racial healer. His penchant for claiming that his and the president’s conservative critics are motivated by racism should disqualify him from serving in that function.
In April, delivering a speech to the annual convention of activist/cable news host Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the U.S. Attorney General denounced the “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly, and divisive” rhetoric directed at Obama by Republicans. He further suggested that racism motivated some GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives who questioned him during a committee hearing with particular vigor.
“Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder remarked. “Had nothing to do with me, what attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”
In May, Holder echoed the claims of MSNBC’s “dog whistle” detectors, who derive their job security by being able to decode the veiled racism in words like “apartment” and “golf,” when he said that subtle – nearly undetectable – racism is a greater scourge than overt discrimination. In other words, the kinds of civil rights violations which the Attorney General is empowered to prosecute are of less relevance to America’s minorities than are the coded messages which are inexplicably only decipherable for the audience these Windtalker racists supposedly trying to avoid alerting.
“There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me [and] directed at the president,” Holder said on ABC’s This Week in June when asked about Republican opposition to a Democratic administration. “You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.”
Holder’s outlook hasn’t changed, and his legacy will be one of limited accomplishment and dubious claims to having been a victim of racial intolerance. According to Politico, the outgoing attorney general’s next chapter will be seeking out a university willing to establish “an Eric Holder Institute for Race and Justice.” It is safe to anticipate that this institute’s work will be long on race and lamentably short on justice.