The Root TV: Whose Race Legacy Will Reign Supreme: Obama’s or Holder’s?

One guy seems to be playing chess, the other checkers, and The Root staff is torn over whose strategy will fare better in the long run.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This video and an abridged version of this article was published at The Root on September 7, 2014.

I often wonder if President Barack Obama ought to take a page out of Attorney General Eric Holder’s book when it comes to being mindful about his legacy as the first African-American president, in the same manner that Holder seems to be astutely mindful (and adept at crafting) his own legacy as the country’s first African-American attorney general.

It seems as if one guy is playing chess (Obama) and the other checkers (Holder), and to be honest, I’m not sure which of the two is the wiser. After watching these two from a distance for the past six years, I still don’t know who I would put my money on in a poker game.

Although, I have to say that I am leaning toward Holder’s strategy—for lack of a better word.

Ever since he assumed his post as the nation’s top law enforcer six years ago, Holder has been extremely candid: here’s a list of all the times Holder demonstrated that he’s never one to mince words, particularly when it comes to the issue of race.

Then there’s Obama, the one with the “measured” approach. It seems his modus operandi has always been the long game. When people were up in arms about how Obama should have been more stern and upset when expressing anger about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., The Root’s associate editor, David Swerdlick, reminded folks of the hierarchy that people seem to overlook: Holder gets his marching orders from Obama.

And while that pecking order is correct, I’m still concerned that Obama seems to be resting his laurels—and his legacy—on the idea that most Americans will readily get that. Or that down the road, Americans will remember. Essentially, I’m concerned that Obama is overestimating the memory of the American people by the way in which he chooses to convey his passion about issues of racial justice.

In today’s world, we ingest sound bites, memes, 15-second Vine videos and sensational photos that circulate on Twitter and Facebook. And so I suspect that in this final stretch of Obama’s administration, as people begin to form opinions about Obama’s race legacy—that is, what he’s done for black people—they’ll reminisce back to just a couple of moments: his race speech during his 2008 presidential campaign, his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” comment and, perhaps (but not likely) the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that he’s been touting of late. Yes, Obama has done a lot for black Americans (being the first black president is a major accomplishment in and of itself), but I suspect that a lot of the wonky policy stuff like Obamacare and increasing grants for students headed to college might not be on the tip of people’s tongues when they’re sitting around the kitchen table or at the barbershop waxing about “The Obama Years.”

Holder’s race catalog is, again, far more demonstrative. His we’re “a nation of cowards” speech (that reportedly caught the White House completely off guard) is pretty representative of how he has never hesitated to wag his index finger furiously at America for the way in which it has tried to sweep racism, and its symptoms, under the carpet. And then, more recently, there are those heartwarming photos of Holder doling out handshakes and hugs in Ferguson. These are the moments that will leave an indelible mark on the national conversation about race.

Holder’s got his eyes on the prize, and Obama seems to be resting assured that people will eventually recognize his influence and appreciate his approach. But knowing a thing or two about the way the collective American memory works, I’m not convinced that’ll be the case.

In The Root TV video above, I fret about Obama’s race legacy and The Root’s associate editor David Swerdlick tries to reel me back in.

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