Eric Holder: the triumph of tokenism

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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 spadeproject.com, 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.”