As Eric Holder prepares to hand over the title of U.S. Attorney General to his successor, Loretta Lynch, he’s putting the finishing touches on his complicated yet impactful legacy. That legacy was far from perfect. Holder failed to prosecute anyone for the 2008 financial crisis, and he let the government off easy for crimes of torture and other abuses. On the other hand, he successfully fought discriminatory voting practices and helped push for same-sex marriage, among several other accomplishments.
No matter how any of those things will affect Holder’s legacy, there’s one thing that will remain its defining factor: race. He was the first African-American U.S. Attorney General, serving in the administration of the nation’s first African-American president. He served during a period of racial tension and protests, during the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The failure of the federal government to intervene in high-profile cases of people like George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson will be the last issue on Holder’s mind during his remaining days in office, he told Politico in a recent exit interview. He said he wanted to use these next few weeks to fight for a new standard of proof for civil rights cases, making it easier for the federal government to get involved. “I think some serious consideration needs to be given to the standard of proof that has to be met before federal involvement is appropriate, and that’s something that I am going to be talking about before I leave office,” Holder said. “I think that if we adjust those standards, we can make the federal government a better backstop — make us more a part of the process in an appropriate way to reassure the American people that decisions are made by people who are really disinterested. I think that if we make those adjustments, we will have that capacity.”
Just as Boston is having difficulties finding an unbiased jury for the trial of marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Holder’s statement suggests that people like Wilson and Zimmerman were unfairly favored in their respective communities. Some will argue that Holder is just looking for another excuse to expand the role of federal government, but those recent high-profile trials demonstrate how important an extra layer of “disinterested” judgment could be when it comes to civil rights.
When asked by Politico whether race influenced the political opposition he faced during his tenure, Holder responded, “There have been times when I thought that’s at least a piece of it.” He acknowledges that the “primary motivator has probably been political in nature,” but there’s no question race played a part. It must have been unthinkably difficult to be the first black Attorney General in an era in which getting away with murder became a trend if the victim was black. Holder shouldn’t be forgiven for his failures in handling the financial crisis or abuses in the War on Terror, but he should be celebrated for his many accomplishments — especially those involving civil rights.