Spectrum Q&A with Eric Holder
Former Attorney General sits down with The Spectrum
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sat down with Spectrum Senior News Editor Ashley Inkumsah for a Q&A session before he spoke at UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series on Thursday night. Holder spoke about his early life, gave advice to college students looking to invoke political change on campus and discussed his major gripes with President Donald Trump’s administration.
Q: You were born in The Bronx and raised in Queens New York. You eventually earned your B.A. and J.D. from Columbia University. How did your early upbringings lead you to where you are today? Do you think students who come from non-Ivy League schools like UB can achieve the same success?
A: I’m originally born and raised in New York City. Born in the Bronx and lived most of my life in Queens with West Indian parents who insisted that education was the key to success. My father didn’t graduate from high school. My mother was a high school graduate and they insisted that their sons take school seriously and they constantly drummed into our heads the notion that ‘if you want to get ahead you’ve got to do well in school.’ I think that there is this mistaken belief that you have to go to [several] schools if you want to be a success but the reality is when I was in the United States Department of Justice, I met people from all around the country who had gone to a whole bunch of different schools who went on to become great prosecutors, judges and who were totally successful in life. You also have to understand that this is a good institution. This is a very, very good school and I would hope that the students here don’t think they are at an institution that should feel second to any other. This is a great place to go to school.
Q: Was it difficult being a person of color in a predominantly white university?
A: I went to Columbia and I started in 1969 until 1973 and there were not that many black students on campus, which forced us together. There were probably 30 or 40 [black students] in my class. Some of whom became lifelong friends, but there was this sense that we were in the college experience together. We socialized together. We found ways to interact with other students on the campus while at the same time maintaining our own identities as African American students. I would say we almost created a community within the larger community and I would say that was the way we really got through it.
Q: Student protests have recently spilled out across the country, particularly in the wake of President Trump’s executive orders. Do you think student protests help bring about change? What makes protests successful?
A: I think people underestimate the power of protests. In my time in college, we were protesting the Vietnam War and I would say the war was ended as a result of the protest that happened. I think it started maybe among young people but then spread into the general population. President Nixon made a calculation that the war could not be contained because there was such popular discontent and I think people have to understand and remember that example that people united around an idea that might be contrary to the views of the government can influence the policy-making, the decisions the government makes. Numbers [make protests successful.] To get as many people involved as you can and then consistency and perseverance. You can’t just show up one weekend and think that even if you have a substantial number of people that that’s going to be a successful protest or that’s going to actually foment positive change. You have to have something that’s going to last a period of time, that’s going to persevere through the ups and downs.
Q: You have spoken out largely against Trump in the short time he’s been in office. What are your thoughts on Trump’s presidency thus far?
A: I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. We’re now about a month or so into his presidency and he takes positions that are just ideologically different than ones that I’ve taken through my public career and so I think we’re gonna be opposed to one another as a result of that. But I also think there is something about his personality, the way in which he interacts with his opponents where he demeans them. I was always taught you can disagree with people but it’s always best to respect your opponents. I always have the view that someone who may have a different view than me might have a better idea, a better way of doing something and if I interact with them in an appropriate way, I gain something from the interaction and I don’t think president Trump necessarily views his opponents in the same way.
Q: In an interview at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, you called for a full investigation into the contacts between Trump and Russian officials. Why did you push so strongly for an investigation?
A: I think that we simply have to know. We know that the Russian government and intelligence apparatus tried to have an influence on our election. There are reports that people in the Trump campaign had conversations with people in the Russian government or the intelligence apparatus during the campaign and I think it is just incumbent upon the investigators in the U.S. to find out exactly what happened. Was there inappropriate contact between the campaign and people in Russia? That is something that we simply have to know. I can’t imagine that we can have an administration that would have had those inappropriate contacts with a foreign government.
Q: What have been your experiences raising black children in America? Have you had “the talk” with your children about how they should carry themselves with law enforcement?
A: I’ve had that conversation with my son. It was a conversation that my father had with me and my thought… my hope was that I would be the last generation to be on the receiving end of that conversation and yet I don’t think we’re necessarily at that point yet in our history. I remember after the Trayon Martin shootings, even though that wasn’t police involved, having that conversation with my son. You know how kids are they’re like ‘I don’t want to talk about that’ but you [just keep] having the conversation and eventually it seeps in how to handle himself appropriately if he’s dealing with law enforcement.
Q: What is one piece of advice that you would give students at UB?
A: In some ways, you almost go to college too young. I can appreciate college now in a way that maybe I didn’t when I was 18 yet you’ve got the ability to take advantage of all the experiences that college offers to you. Not only what you learn in the classroom because obviously that’s important but to be involved in college activities, to get to interact with people who you might not otherwise come in contact with. You know, I went to Columbia and made lifelong friends with a guy from Nebraska, another guy from Cleveland Ohio, another Guy from Jackson, Mississippi, a guy from New Orleans. These are people that I would never have come to know if not for my experiences at Columbia and I’m sure that the same thing is true here. The ability to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things and people – those are the kinds of things that make college not only interesting but help shape your life for the better.
Ashley Inkumsah is the co-senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org