U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sparked a debate over race relations this week with a speech in which he said the United States was a nation of cowards because most Americans prefer to avoid candid talk about race.  

At a Justice Department commemoration of Black History month, Eric Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, had some strong words about the state of race relations in the United States.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race," he said.

Holder said while Americans have largely integrated the workplace during the week, blacks and whites still tend to segregate themselves on weekends.

The attorney general said it was time for straight talk about an issue that has vexed the country since the earliest days of the Republic.

"If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more, and we in this room bear a special responsibility," he said. 

Re-igniting the race debate

Holder's comments have re-ignited a debate over the state of race relations in the United States, and prompted a variety of reactions in a random sampling of tourists and government workers near the U.S. Capitol building.

"I think, you know, it rests on everybody's shoulders to improve where we are," one woman said. "You know, white, black, Latino, green, blue."

"We fought a civil war over race and a lot of brave people died to end slavery," one man said. "And there were people of many different races and ethnic backgrounds that participated in the civil rights movement. I think we have come a long way."

"I agree partially with what he said, but also that America has become more diverse and a lot of other people's cultures are here and we have to respect and deal with that too,"  said another man.

A new page in American history

Holder's speech came just weeks after a new chapter was opened in race relations in the United States with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president.

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath," he said.

Attorney General Holder said the celebration of Black History month should serve as an occasion for dialogue, tolerance and understanding on the issue of race relations.

"This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful, but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little," he said.

Holder said that no understanding of America is complete without an examination of the history of Africans in the United States. To get to the heart of the country, Holder said, you have to examine its racial soul.