It cannot be colorblind "given the disparities that still afflict and divide us," he said.
The fact that no one person can take full credit for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may be, to some, one of its most extraordinary aspects, particularly given the current climate of extreme gridlock. As U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder noted in remarks delivered at a Tuesday event at Howard University marking the law's 50th anniversary, it took two great presidents; a Congress willing to stand up to bigots; and civil rights leaders who made enormous sacrifices, in some cases their lives, "so that others might live free."
Most of all, Holder added, "It required men, women, and even children, of tremendous courage and unwavering faith, to endure the unendurable and advance the cause of justice."
The consequences of the bill's passage were "monumental," and without the courage and sacrifices of others, Holder said he wouldn't be the U.S. attorney general serving the nation's first African-American president. But, he cautioned, such progress doesn't mean there's not still a lot of work left to do.
"Although we can be proud of the progress that’s been made even within our lifetimes, we cannot accept these advances as an indication that our work is complete, that our long journey has been successfully concluded," Holder said. "Progress is not an end; it is a measure of effort and of commitment."
He ticked off a list of ongoing and prevalent acts of discrimination, from people of color and members of the LGBT community being denied access to credit and housing to women being denied equal pay. Students of color are more likely to attend poorly funded schools while African-American men serve jail sentences that are on average 20 percent longer than those served by white men for similar crimes, Holder said.
"And when it comes to our most treasured democratic institutions, many vulnerable populations — including young people, the elderly, and communities of color — are now facing a range of new restrictions, leveled under the dubious guise of voter fraud prevention, that create significant barriers to the ballot box," he lamented.
While stressing the need for societal responsibility, Holder also called on individuals to take personal responsibility for their "negligent or counterproductive" behaviors. He said that if a majority of Americans faced the same injustices that plague certain communities or demographics, "our national dialog, and our responses to these problems, would be very different." Society isn't and should not be colorblind, "given the disparities that still afflict and divide us," he added, but it "must be color brave" and "never forget that all are made better and more prosperous if all are given equal opportunities."
Holder has come under fire during the past 48 hours for speaking frankly about race in America and the reality that racial discrimination and racism still exist. He is not afraid to note that some people resent the fact that there is a Black family living in the White House and has called on Americans to not be a "nation of cowards" when it comes to the still extremely sensitive but lingering issue of race.
As a young boy, Holder watched on a black-and-white television news reports of civil rights activists braving "dogs and fire hoses, billy clubs and baseball bats, bullets and bombs" so that he would one day grow up to become the nation's top cop. So, he still has hope.
"As a people, we have never been content to tie ourselves to an unjust status quo, no matter how many individuals may find it acceptable. We challenge; we question; we struggle; we quarrel," he said. "We bind ourselves to the ongoing quest for a better future. And ultimately, we move forward together — as one nation, indivisible — driven by our pursuit of a more perfect Union and determined, come what may, to achieve it."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)