As the first African American to have served as U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder possesses a unique perspective when it comes to issues of race and justice in America.
During his tenure as AG, before stepping down in 2015, Holder spoke out in defense of voting rights, and aggressively challenged harsh immigration laws in Arizona. In 2009, Holder famously declared ours a "nation of cowards" when it comes addressing race and racism in a speech characterized by one commenter as "the verbal equivalent to shock and awe."
However, when pressed recently on the question of reparations for African Americans, Holder stopped just shy of actually declaring his full support.
The exchange came as part of a conversation on "Race and Justice in America" between Holder and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" host Michel Martin, held April 29 at Georgetown University. There, Holder was asked by an attendee whether he believes in the argument for reparations, and what, if anything, is owed the descendants of slaves in this country (the question begins at around 49:30 in the video above).
"How do we move forward at this point?" concluded the audience member.
"You know it's interesting, because I think it's how you define 'reparations.'" Holder responded. "This notion that somehow there ought to be like a cash payment, or something like that. I think that's what people tend to think of when they think of reparations.
"You can come up with policies that take into account what slavery meant then, what it means now," Holder continued. "Affirmative action can be thought of as reparations, you know? And it takes into account … the negative impacts of negative racial policies that have hobbled the progress of African-Americans, people of color in this country."
The issue of reparations strikes particularly close to home for many at Georgetown, after it came to light that the school had used the sale of nearly 300 slaves to pay down its debt in the early 19th century. A New York Times article last month examined the legacy of that transaction, and questioned what, if anything, the school should do for the descendants of those slaves whose sale effectively ensured Georgetown's existence.
Holder, in his response to the audience member's question, went on to explain that regardless of major milestones such as the emancipation of the slaves, Brown v. the Board of Education, and the Civil and Voting rights acts, "…where do we get to the point where we say all right, we’ve got a system, a country, that is truly fair, that is race-neutral? We’re not there yet. We’re simply not there yet.
Responses to Holder's answer have been mixed, with some celebrating what seems like an accurate diagnosis of racial issues still challenging our nation as a whole, while questioning the notion that affirmative action itself qualifies as reparations.
On Twitter, Duke University's Sandy Darity, who serves as Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, wrote, "Affirmative action is NOT reparations. Holder needs to do some research." It's a sentiment echoed by New School Professor of Economics and Urban Policy Darrick Hamilton, who responded saying: "glad Holder embraces reparations,but as Sandy said, AA addresses anti-discrimination, not reparations."
While it remains to be seen whether Holder will expand upon his comments, and offer a more focused examination on the issue of reparations, Georgetown has already begun taking action to address its history of slave ownership. Late last year, the university took steps to retitle two dormitory buildings which had previously been named for past Georgetown presidents involved in the school's sale of slaves.