U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s provocative commentary and characterization about the state of race relations in America on Wednesday night before his Department of Justice employees has drawn both great fire and praise from across the political spectrum.

Holder’s comments, however – a mixture of prose that challenged America to improve its race relations, and poetic obfuscation that did not delineate any tangible benchmarks the country has met or should achieve on the issue of race – stand in stark contrast to the way the vast majority of Minnesotans view the relations between black and white Americans today.

The headline from Holder’s speech was the need for the country to foster a dialogue among the races that, he views, America has failed to do in a meaningful way:

“In things racial we have always been and we I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially, a nation of cowards.”

But the comments from Holder that clearly departed from Minnesotan’s collective views on race were with regards to the progress of race relations throughout the last 40 to 50 years:

“We are then free to retreat to our race-protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made.”

About 10 months ago (April 22, 2008), Rasmussen polled 500 likely voters in Minnesota and asked them a series of questions about race in America.

· Regarding the progress the country has made since the 1960s, 78 percent of Minnesotans believe relations between white Americans and black Americans are better today, with only 10 percent saying they are not better.

· More than four times as many Minnesotans also believe the current trajectory of race relations in the U.S. is also positive – with 59 percent of the view that relations between blacks and whites are getting better today, with just 14 percent saying they are getting worse. About one in five (22 percent) believed they were neither getting better nor worse. (And, with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States seven months after this poll was conducted, one would expect any movement in those numbers to be more positive, not less).

· A fair number of Minnesotans also seem to burst out of their ‘race-protected cocoons’ – as 40 percent reported sharing a meal with a person of a different race during the previous week, with 54 percent saying they had not.

· Finally, when asked if they had personally witnessed racial discrimination during the past week, more than six times as many Gopher State residents said they had not (83 percent) as compared to those who said they had (13 percent).

Of course, Minnesota’s perception of race is bound to be different from that of other states across the nation which have larger (or smaller) numbers of racial minorities. And, to be sure, public opinion polls only reflect professed attitudes, not necessarily the reality of race relations.

However, it is also the case that Attorney General Holder’s pronouncement of the state of race in America today is also just that – an attitude, and not necessarily an accurate characterization of current race relations, let alone how much progress the country has made during the past two generations.

What can be said with confidence, to be sure, is that Minnesotans as a whole do not seem to share the same views with Holder on this issue. As such, and in light of the backlash Holder’s speech seems to have provoked among many Americans, do not expect to find the Attorney General on the campaign trail giving stump speeches for President Obama in 2012.


  1. Adrienne Alexander on February 20, 2009 at 8:27 am

    As a Black woman and non-Minnesotan, I felt it necessary to comment on this post…I’m not at all surprised that anyone would think that race relations have improved since the 1960s, they have, immensely. I think what AG Holder was trying to convey was that, particularly, in a time when people are trying to declare that we are living in a post-racial society, that there still needs to be discussion about race because we are not at a point where we can declare racism is over.

    I think this particularly pertinent for a place like Minnesota, which is still fairly homogeneous, but has a growing minority population. Further, this so called “Minnesota nice” too often prevents open, honest discussion on the issue. Perhaps talking to Minnesota’s minorities would warrant a different response…

    Lastly, it’s important to recognize that race relations are not limited to Black and White Americans.

    Thank you.

  2. Eric Ostermeier on February 20, 2009 at 8:30 am

    > Lastly, it’s important to recognize that race relations are not
    > limited to Black and White Americans.

    That’s one of the reasons it was interesting that Holder’s comments were exclusively, I believe, couched in terms of black-and-white.

  3. jkruse on February 20, 2009 at 9:36 am

    do not expect to find the Attorney General on the campaign trail giving stump speeches for President Obama in 2012.

    I’m thankful there are people in the public venue who are willing to say things that may disqualify them from delivering stump speeches. I don’t think campaigning should be the primary function of the A.G.

  4. Adrienne Alexander on February 20, 2009 at 11:28 am

    It was my understanding that the event was for a Black History Month program, and when reading his entire comments (http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/speeches/2009/ag-speech-090218.html), I didn’t find them inappropriate given the venue. Also, many times he simply referred to racial matters broadly and did note that the country was becoming more ethnically diverse. I didn’t find it to be exclusively Black and White, but that’s just my opinion. Thanks for the response.

  5. Eric Ostermeier on February 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    > Also, many times he simply referred to racial matters broadly
    > and did note that the country was becoming more ethnically
    > diverse. I didn’t find it to be exclusively Black and White, but
    > that’s just my opinion.

    Right – it was an event at the DoJ for Black History month. There were a few mentions to race matters more broadly but only two races were mentioned by name – blacks or African Americans (over 40 times), and whites (4 times).

    There was no specific mention of any other race in the speech, though, given the context of the speech that is understandable. But that is also the very reason why my blog addresses only the black-and-white race relations issue, and not other race relations.

    Thanks for sending the link.

  6. Noel Nix on February 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I think many Minnesotans live in somewhat of a bubble when it comes to understanding the climate of race relations. As Garrison Keillor says, here in “Lake Wobegon” everyone believes that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” One could add to that list, “all the races live in harmony.” In a nation that is sold on its exceptionalism, Minnesotans, I have found, tend to consider themselves a cut above. Clearly this feeling extends to the issue of race relations.

    It is easy to understand why many white Minnesotans would feel that race relations are on the up and up. At the time of the survey, Obama had already carried Minnesota by a margin of almost 2-to-1. He had recently delivered his landmark speech on race, a brilliant oratory on the state of race relations but not successful in sparking a LONG overdue dialogue on racial equity. If anything, this speech assuaged the fears of white liberals and moderates who wondered if Obama shared his former pastor’s sense of black anger, a topic that is still little discussed. With John McCain yet to pick the controversial Sarah Palin for his running mate and thereby through gasoline on the culture war, most white Minnesotans were propbably feeling good about the race issue.

    The “shared a meal” question is particularly interesting. In our increasingly diverse work places, it is likely that many Minnesotans have lunch or even breakfast with someone who doesn’t look like them. However, I wonder what the data would be if the question were rephrased to pertain to Sunday dinner. I have a feeling the numbers would be a lot lower.

    Finally, it is true that race issues are not related to black and white Americans. However, I don’t think we can assume AG Holder was speaking strictly in these terms simply because he is a black man. I think the same notions apply to relations between latinos and other groups (masked as the debate about “immigration”), asians and other groups (black and asian relations are historically horrible), and that’s just to name a few dynamics. Let’s not even get into the relationship between arabs and other groups in post 9/11 America. Holders “cocoon” applies to all these groups in relationship to how they feel about their relationships to one another.

    As has been said by many commentators, the danger in Obama’s election is for Americans of all stripes, but especially white Americans, to take it as evidence that the “race problem” has been solved.

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