In a pointed and at times personal speech, Attorney General Eric Holder on Saturday morning argued that America's struggle for racial equality has become defined less by expressions of outright bigotry than by policies that subtly but systematically impede equal opportunity.
Speaking during the commencement ceremony at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Holder referred obliquely to a series of racially charged episodes that have "received substantial media coverage" in recent weeks -- an apparent reference to the controversial comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. But Holder also said that the "outlandish statements that capture national attention" obscure a more troubling reality.
"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," he said, according a copy of his prepared remarks.
"The greatest threats," he said, "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."
The comments were Holder's most extensive on the subject of race since early 2009, when he gave a speech during Black History Month that generated controversy and reportedly infuriated President Barack Obama's chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel.
In that speech, Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, referred to the country as "essentially a nation of cowards," arguing that Americans were not comfortable enough with one another to discuss the issue of race candidly.
Saturday's speech -- which aides said was vetted by the White House and which was delivered on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation decision -- was centered more squarely on the issues that have animated Holder in the twilight of his tenure, particularly criminal sentencing policies and voter identification laws.
In the case of the criminal justice system, Holder pointed to "systemic and unwarranted racial disparities," noting that a study last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that in recent years African-American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Another report showed that American Indians are often sentenced even more harshly, he said.
"Disparate outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable, they impede our ability to see that justice is done," Holder said.
Similarly, Holder said that voter identification laws that have been enacted in a number of states across the country threaten to make it harder for minorities to exercise their rights at the polls. Proponents of the measures say they are intended to combat voter fraud, a problem that Holder has dismissed as virtually nonexistent.
"Rather than addressing a supposedly widespread problem, these policies disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans, Hispanics and other communities of color," he said.
Holder also expressed concern about "zero-tolerance" disciplinary practices at schools, saying that they are "well-intentioned" but that they affect black males at three times the rate they affect their white peers.
Beyond policy issues, Holder spoke broadly about the struggle for racial equality and what he suggested was the failure of some to fully grasp the degree to which minority groups can be marginalized. He took direct aim at the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, who famously wrote in a 2007 opinion that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
"This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn't need to be actively confronted," Holder countered. "In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it."
Civil rights have been a central tenet of Holder's tenure. He spoke out strongly against "stand your ground" laws after the 2012 shooting in Florida of 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin. His Justice Department sued Texas and North Carolina to try and overturn their voter-identification laws.
In his address to the Morgan State graduates, however, he also made clear that his passion for civil rights issues is rooted in his own history. He recalled his father, an immigrant who enlisted in the Army during World War II, being denied service at a lunch counter at one time and being told to leave a whites-only train car at another, "even though he was wearing the uniform of his country."
"When I think of the duties, the rights and the weighty responsibilities of American citizenship, responsibilities that are now entrusted to each of you, I think of that man, my father . . . who never lost faith in the greatness of his country even when it did not reciprocate his devotion," Holder said. "A man who never stopped believing in the promise of this nation, even when that promise was obscured by injustice."