Eric Holder: the triumph of tokenism



Word has been leaking like a sieve from the catacombs of Washington power about an interesting list of cabinet appointments. First, Obama appears to have selected former Clinton Administration Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder as his choice for Attorney General; finally, a Black appointment. Folks were beginning to wonder. The Holder appointment is not exactly Earth shattering and has been on the radar for several months.

Having met Obama in 2004, Holder was immediately impressed with the Senator’s depth and the feeling was mutual. Along with President Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, Holder oversaw the vetting process that facilitated the unimpressive addition of Joe Biden to Obama’s ticket.

A longtime Justice Department lawyer, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and a former DC Superior Court Judge, Holder is qualified to become Attorney General and it is my contention that Hillary would have appointed him as well as a sop to black folk for having defeated Obama through ruthless and deceptive means.

Holder, 57, is a standard issue establishment Negro who is safe, unimaginative, competent and compliant. As a partner in Covington & Burling, he has profited from his firm’s flacking for Halliburton’s bloated no-bid contracts and for other corporate predators like the Southern Peru Copper Corporation that left a trail of environmental devastation, economic dislocation, and a populace suffering from the deleterious health effects of toxic lead contamination.

While defending corporate criminals like Southern Peru Copper from any accountability for their crimes against the defenseless poor under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Covington & Burling has an interesting record of pro-bono work that has established the Fifth Amendment rights of Guantanamo detainees and defended abortion rights against the right-wing. Moreover, they’ve won a number of significant and high profile employment discrimination lawsuits on behalf of people of color.

What bothers me about Holder, though, is the law firm he is a partner in and what that ultimately says about Barack Obama’s oft stated “Change We Can Believe In.”

Yolanda Young, a writer, fellow blogger at, and former staff attorney at Covington Burling, has written of the firm’s culture of face saving tokenism.

Staff attorneys are non-partner track lawyers who handle the menial legal tasks–generating binders and attaching “relevant” or “not relevant” codes to thousands of emails, spreadsheets, and any other documents associated with a particular case–that associates shun. While paralegals have their own offices, as many as ten staff attorneys share windowless file rooms. Segregated from other lawyers in the firm, we go uninvited to attorney-only firm functions and are not provided jury duty or maternity leave. The base pay and bonus structure is half that of a 25 year old first year associate’s.

Blacks at Covington comprise less than 5% of the Washington office’s partners and associates, but make up 30% of its staff attorneys. A peek at the firm’s website doesn’t reveal this since, unlike all other lawyers there, staff attorneys aren’t pictured. Were they, a peculiar pattern would emerge.

In a Legal Times essay, “The Unqualified Myth,” Veta T. Richardson, Executive Director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association wrote, “Law firms claim to have consistent hiring criteria, but their ranks are actually filled with exceptions to the rule. These exceptions are more likely to be white lawyers.” Indeed, Covington’s black staff attorneys (like its black partners and associates) hail from top law schools like Harvard, Duke and Georgetown while several white associates and partners attended schools like Catholic, Kentucky and Villanova (all ranked well below 50). Taken as a whole, the black staff attorneys’ average law school rank is higher than that of white staff attorneys at the firm.

Blacks bought into the notion, stressed by legal literature, ranking systems and law firm recruiting departments, that investing in a top legal education is paramount for those wishing to work at top law firms. It’s disheartening to then discover that the black student who borrows $120,000 to attend Georgetown will only earn half that of the white associate who’s [sic] paid $60,000 to attend the University of Maryland.

Covington began stockpiling its staff attorney ghetto with blacks and other minorities in 2005, shortly after the General Council of some of the country’s largest companies joined Roderick A. Palmore, Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary of Sara Lee in taking a tougher stance on law firm diversity. Signed by hundreds of General Counsel, this new “Call to Action” states they will retain firms that demonstrate a level of diversity reflective of their employees and customers and end their relationship with firms “whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse.”

Covington has certainly diversified its firm; however, its attorneys are far from equals. The vast majority of Covington’s black attorneys do no substantive work; have no control over their case assignments and no opportunity for advancement. This seems to be just the sort of structure the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warned against in its 2003 “Diversity In Law Firms” report which stated, “In large, national law firms, the most pressing issues have probably shifted from hiring and initial access to problems concerning the terms and conditions of employment, especially promotion to partnership.”

Having worked in the private sector, I’ve experienced both subtle and blatant forms of employment discrimination.  The politics of corporate diversity, in my view, is nothing more than a deceptive shell game.  I have worked for an organization whose CEO was a black man, the first ever, and still been subjected to retaliatory racism that led, in part, to my resignation.  Whatever feelings about race I may have, I come by them honestly.   It’s troubling to hear about better educated black professionals in supposedly high prestige workplaces being subjected to disparate treatment while a prominent black partner did little or nothing about it.

The Justice Department, in a sense, is the most powerful law firm in the world. The Bushites in control for the last eight years have done their level best to destroy it by turning it into a partisan dumping ground for the most far right hacks in their stable of fools.  They have conspired to undermine the administration of justice, facilitated torture and spied on the american people without probable cause. If a black partner in one of the most powerful Washington law firms can turn a blind eye to the discrimination in his own firm, I have to question why Barack Obama believes he is the right man to become Attorney General of the United States at this time. Finally, if he’s confirmed, I fear that Holder is just another token incapable of delivering anything resembling “Change We Can Believe In.”



18 thoughts on “Eric Holder: the triumph of tokenism

  1. I’m from DC and know plenty of black lawyers there who work for blue chip firms like Covington. Most of them do confirm what no one should be surprised about: that racism exists within law firms. That being said, I think you should take the missive referred to in your post for what it is: a single person’s point of view. Most of the black folks I know at places like Hogan & Hartson, Baker, Botts, etc., went to law schools like Stanford, Yale and Harvard. All of them are partners. DC law firms are far more diverse than their counterparts in New York, Chicago and LA. Granted, that’s a pretty low bar. But if Holder is familiar with the blue chip law firm sector outside of DC, he may actually think that Covington is doing well by comparison. Also, law firms make their money supporting corporate theivery. That’s what they do. Attorney Generals are lawyers. Many of them worked at law firms. There’s nothing about Covington client list that is exceptionally brutal. They’d defend Voldemort if he could meet their hourly rate. That’s what they do.

    It’s been pretty well established that while Obama is a breath of fresh air in many ways, that he’s not a radical. Who did you expect him to appoint as his attorney general. Barry Scheck?

    It should also be noted that Obama has thusfar appointed three black people to senior levels in his administration: Valerie Jarrett, Mona Sutphen and Eric Holder.

  2. Cliff

    “Holder, 57, is a standard issue establishment Negro who is safe, unimaginative, competent and compliant.”

    SB, I like establishment Negroes, because I know that
    they are utilizing their intelligence to “fit in,” and
    not threaten white establishment for a limited time only.
    There is always a time limit on how long a Negro can remain
    established in a safe-mode. This is why the rich white upper
    class, is always looking for people who appear to be threatening
    to revolutionize Negroes out of their establishment.

    They have the potential to be a part of change, because it is in
    their DNA, but we always wonder if they will eventually choose
    to be a part of the fight consciously raise their people.

    On the other hand some “Uncle Ruckus Negroes” like these are not safe,
    but almost to the point of them not being able to be helped.

    Now there is a difference between a “Safe Negro,” and an

    “Uncle Ruckus Negroe.” I would prefer a “Safe Negro.” 🙂

  3. “Also, law firms make their money supporting corporate theivery.”

    OTOH, there are plenty of lawyers working for organizations that litigate against corporate theivery. I wish someone with more of that type of background had been given this very important job.

  4. Ernesto,

    Sadly, very, very few of those lawyers get the type of public sector experience that would qualify them for the AG job. One of the few exceptions, ironically, is the president elect of the United States.

  5. RisingTide

    ten bucks says no Hillary as Sec of State. I don’t believe that will happen.

    If it had been any other position, sure… but that one? Lady has no cards for that table.

  6. RisingTide,

    If she hasn’t already been offered the position, which increasingly is seeming likely, she won’t be because of the leaks by her minions. All of the blown kisses thrown by the right-wing do nothing but confirm my worst suspicions about the Queen of Triangulation. It’s hard to understand what Barack could be thinking in even considering Hillary. The idea that she is a team player is like saying that Bill was enticed by Monica’s intellect.

  7. RisingTide

    He doesn’t need a team player — he needs a copresident because our world is falling apart. And the world loves bill, and will love hillary. Her new job is “keep a lid on it”

  8. Ja

    I don’t get what you’re talking about when you say that Young’s piece is “one person’s opinion.” Much of what she said was confirmed by Covington in a press release highlighted on the Wall Street Journal blawg:

    For example, it’s not opinion that over 30% of the non partner track staff attorneys are black while only 5% of the associates and partners are. Also, you know good and well a partner has NO BUSINESS making a joke about his childhood pet monkey at a meeting about racial sensitivity.

  9. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows these things that President-elect Barack Obama today chose as the new attorney general his campaign co-chair Eric Holder, a former deputy AG in the Clinton Administration and partner at

  10. Andrew Yu-Jen Wang

    Speaking of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

    Eric Holder is a racial-minority individual, and in his heart and mind he inevitably does not endorse hate crimes committed by George W. Bush.

    George W. Bush committed hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism (indicated in my blog).

    George W. Bush did in fact commit innumerable hate crimes.

    And I do solemnly swear by Almighty God that George W. Bush committed other hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism which I am not at liberty to mention.

    Many people know what Bush did.

    And many people will know what Bush did—even to the end of the world.

    Bush was absolute evil.

    Bush is now like a fugitive from justice.

    Bush is a psychological prisoner.

    Bush has a lot to worry about.

    Bush can technically be prosecuted for hate crimes at any time.

    In any case, Bush will go down in history in infamy.

    Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen Wang
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA
    Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993

    I am not sure where I had read it before, but anyway, it is a linguistically excellent statement, and it goes kind of like this: “If only it were possible to ban invention that bottled up memories so they never got stale and faded.” Oh wait—off the top of my head—I think the quotation came from my Lower Merion High School yearbook.

  11. Mark

    Nice article. It occurred to me recently that this Holder guy might just be a token, and my search yielded this wonderful sight. He seems kind of full of himself.

    PS Was Yolanda wrong… “the white associate who’s [sic] paid $60,000”
    should be “who is” or “who’s” and not whose

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