Holder Warns Graduates of More ‘Subtle’ Forms of Discrimination

Policies described as “race neutral” often pose a greater threat to equality than insensitive comments that result in media attention, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told graduates of Morgan State University.

“These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done -- because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines,” Holder said today at the historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland.

Such threats “are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized,” he said.

Although Holder, 63, didn’t specify any racist “outbursts,” his speech comes just weeks after recordings surfaced in which Don Sterling, the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, told a friend not to bring black people to his team’s games or post photos of herself with basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Within days, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the league and started proceedings to force him to sell the franchise. The comments generated intense media coverage and discussions on social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Holder, the first black to serve in the highest U.S. law enforcement post, in his commencement address said that threats to equality no longer reside “in overtly discriminatory statutes like the ‘separate but equal’ laws of 60 years ago.”

Discipline Practices

Holder, who delivered his speech on the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racially segregated public schools, said the more insidious forms of discrimination include “zero tolerance” school-discipline practices that “affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.”

Other forms of subtle discrimination include laws that result in stiffer prison sentences for blacks and other minorities than whites, as well as voter-identification statutes that proponents say are intended to halt fraud at the polls, he said. Several states have passed such laws in recent years.

The attorney general said voter fraud “has never been shown to exist,” and such laws “disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans, Hispanics, other communities of color and vulnerable populations such as the elderly.”

‘Moral Failing’

“Interfering with or depriving a person the right to vote should never be a political aim,” Holder said. “It’s a moral failing.”

Holder also took issue with a 6-2 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in April that upheld a voter-approved ban on racial preferences in admissions at Michigan’s state-run universities, praising Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the case.

Sotomayor, who took the unusual step of reading a summary of her dissent from the bench, wrote that the court was “permitting the majority to use its numerical advantage to change the rules mid-contest and forever stack the deck against racial minorities in Michigan.”

She also wrote that “this refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable,” as she broke with Chief Justice John Roberts’ push to steer the court toward a colorblind approach to the U.S. Constitution.

Holder, noting that Roberts “has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether,” called Sotomayor’s dissent in the Michigan case “insightful.”

“Discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet of a Jim Crow-like statute,” Holder said. “And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.”

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