Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American to lead the Justice Department, is “like a modern-day George Wallace,” according to a senior staffer at the conservative Cato Institute. Wallace, who served as Alabama’s governor for much of the 1960s through the 1980s, was an arch-segregationist for much of his time in office. In his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace issued the rallying cry “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Later that same year, when two black students attempted to register at the University of Alabama, Wallace famously stood in the doorway of the university’s auditorium in a symbolic attempt to block their entry.
In a column that was briefly published on Cato’s website, Ilya Shapiro, a Cato Senior Fellow who frequently litigates on behalf of the think tank before the Supreme Court, drew the comparison between Holder and Wallace. Holder, according to Shapiro’s column, “has called for racial preference now, racial preferences tomorrow, racial preferences forever.” The column has since been removed from Cato’s webpage.
When I asked Shapiro on Twitter to comment on his comparison between a notorious segregationist and the first black Attorney General of the United States, Shapiro labeled his comparison “minor hyperbole.” He also criticized Holder for “[r]acial preferences and other discriminatory actions,” and cited the Justice Department’s involvement in a lawsuit challenging the state of Louisiana’s school voucher program.
According to Shapiro, this involvement, which DOJ says was limited to ensuring that they could “obtain information on the voucher program on a timely basis and . . . facilitate implementation of the program consistent with the state’s desegregation obligations,” was akin to Wallace’s symbolic stand for segregation at the University of Alabama. In a tweet, Shapiro described DOJ’s involvement in this lawsuit as “Holder’s standing in schoolhouse door stopping poor kids in LA from better education.”
School vouchers are a contentious issue. Their supporters argue that they improve educational outcomes by allowing children in failing schools to attend classes elsewhere. Their opponents warn that they drain resources from public schools and that they can shunt low-income students to private schools that are subject to lower education standards than public schools. Neither their supporters nor their opponents, however, believe that the United States should maintain a set of separate, inherently inferior schools for black students in order to maintain a system of racial apartheid. Jim Crow, contrary to Shapiro’s suggestion, bears little resemblance to a good faith debate over education policy.
Neither Shapiro nor any of his colleagues at Cato responded to multiple requests for an explanation why his column was removed from the think tank’s website. A tweet from one of Cato’s most senior executives, however, suggests that Shapiro’s column did not meet the approval of his bosses. The title of Shapiro’s column was “Eric Holder: Worst Attorney General Ever?” And it argued that “Holder has tarnished the nation’s highest law enforcement office more even than Nixon’s AG John Mitchell.” Mitchell, of course, served 19 months in prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
After Bloomberg‘s David Weigel wrote an apparent criticism of Shapiro on Twitter — “‘Eric Holder was the nation’s most corrupt attorney general,’ says someone who forgot John Mitchell” — Cato’s Executive Vice President David Boaz agreed with Weigel’s critique. Boaz suggested to Weigel that President Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was also more corrupt than Holder. Palmer spearheaded a series of raids that targeted people believed to hold radical political beliefs in 1919 and 1920.