In a speech marking Black History Month, the nation’s first black attorney general, Eric Holder, said the U.S. is "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid discussions on unresolved racial issues.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said.
In the speech, Holder urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for honest discussion of racial matters, including issues of health care, education and economic disparities.
Race, Holder said, "is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable... If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."
Holder's speech echoed President Barack Obama's landmark address last year on race relations during the Democratic primaries, when the then-candidate urged the nation to break "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years" and complained about the "chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
He added that while the workplace is largely integrated, most Americans still self-segregate on the weekends and in their private lives.
"Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad," said Holder.
"If we're going to ever make progress, we're going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified," Holder told reporters after the speech.
People have already started to take sides on the Holder’s stance. Some claim it wasn’t Holder’s place to discuss such a sensitive issue while others praise him for his honesty.
Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, praised Holder's general message but said the wording of the speech may alienate some.
"He's right on the substance, but that's probably not the most politic way of saying it. I'm certain there are people who will hear him and say, 'That's obnoxious,'" he said.
Hilary Shelton, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called the speech "constructively provocative."
"Nobody wants to be considered a coward. We've learned to get along by exclusion and silence. We need to talk about it. People need to feel comfortable saying the wrong things," said Shelton.
What do you think? Did Holder take it too far? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
For a complete transcript of Holder’s speech, click here.