Eric Holder was the nation’s first black attorney general at a time when civil-rights issues were at the forefront of the public consciousness, from a new assault on voting rights to the Black Lives Matter movement to a rethinking of mass incarceration. He was often at the center of controversy around these issues, likening his tenure to Tupac Shakur’s “All Eyez on Me.”
Holder is an important character in my book Give Us the Ballot, and on Monday I had the opportunity to interview him at the Ford Foundation, as part of a fascinating symposium on “Reimagining Justice in the 21st Century” with Congressman John Lewis, Ford President Darren Walker, Heather McGee of Demos, Umi Selah of the Dream Defenders, Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream and Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates. (My colleague Joan Walsh had a great piece about attending the gathering on the same day Donald Trump called for barring all Muslims from entering the United States.)
Holder denounced the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, praised the Black Lives Matter movement, said that American was still “a nation of cowards” when it came to discussing race, and took credit for rebuilding the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which this week launched an investigation into the Chicago Police Department. He admitted that “the biggest failure I had as attorney general” was the Obama administration’s inability to persuade Congress to pass new gun-safety measures after Sandy Hook. And on a lighter note, he called Karl Rove “an idiot,” and said, “Biggie and Tupac were heard for the first time at the Justice Department when I was attorney general.”
Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Ari Berman : Do you think the election of the first African-American president and the appointment of the first African-American attorney general paradoxically led to a political climate where people believed that things like the Voting Rights Act were no longer needed?