Last week, Senior Staff Writer Simon Panfilio attended a talk with former attorney general Eric Holder on the state of voting rights in modern America.

“’America will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy America’,” Professor Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, said to the audience members gathered before him in a lecture room on the third floor of Pulitzer Hall, quoting W. E. B. Du Bois. “Well, who’s ahead on the scorecards?” he asked the audience, laughing sardonically. “America and ignorance, tied at 6, going into extra innings.”

Last Friday, February 17th, Columbia Law’s Black Law Students Association hosted former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Dean Cobb in Pulitzer Hall for the Paul Robeson Conference and Gala, an annual event of the past three decades. Dean Cobb and Attorney General Holder took the stage in Pulitzer Hall to discuss Holder’s new book Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote, which chronicles the history of the right to vote and the attacks it has endured throughout its history, including over the past few years, as state legislatures have begun passing laws to add new barriers and complications to voting rights. Dean Cobb began by asking the former attorney general “how did we get here, battling for rights that people might have previously believed were assured?” Attorney General Holder responded that we’ve always been here. “That’s the nature of the American experience,” he said; “the push and pull between those with and without power has defined our history.”

“How do we battle, then?” Dean Cobb asked.”How do we withstand that push and pull?” “You persuade to the extent we can, but you fight like hell as we’ve always had to do,” Holder responded. He invoked the example of Paul Robeson, the historical figure for whom the conference was named. Robeson, the son of escaped slaves, was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Rutgers, simultaneously a dominant athlete and academic figure who went on to study at Columbia Law and become a globally renowned actor, a folk singer, and a polyglot. “The idea of Paul Robeson existing was purely a product of Paul Robeson existing,” Dean Cobb said. His true genius was conceiving of this possibility for himself.” Attorney General Holder, meanwhile, celebrated the example of Robeson and other great civil rights leaders fighting for “an America they’d never seen and only imagined.”

Both speakers stopped to acknowledge the duality of the progress already made and of the bleak reality of the current situation. On the one hand, Dean Cobb noted, his father, who had lived in Georgia prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, “would’ve been killed if he tried to vote”; a generation later, Cobb, while living in Atlanta, served as a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, playing a hand in nominating the first Black presidential candidate. It’s “an arc of progress we should be proud of,” Dean Cobb said, but he also brought up something that, in 2008, first emerged as a “statistical blip”, before taking on more gravity over the ensuing years. When polled about views on race, a small number of white people in 2008 responded that white people were the most disadvantaged racial group in modern America. In 2010, this number got bigger and has only continued to grow up till today in the post-2016 world.

Dean Cobb then asked the former attorney general about his experience in the Obama administration, while this dangerous racial identity crisis among white Americans continued to bubble up. Attorney General Holder described a split within the administration over how to address the emotional reality of the situation. Some members of the administration, Holder said, resolved to “just push”—with limited time on the job, and carrying a mandate from a big electoral win, no attention should be given to the reactions of a very small segment of the population, relative to the size of the mandate. “Others [in the administration] were wary of the political reaction,” he continued. “I was dismissive of them, maybe too dismissive in retrospect, because the reaction to the first Black president and the first Black attorney general was more substantial than anticipated, and the election of Donald Trump is the greatest indication of that.”

The attorney general characterized the current efforts to restrict voting rights in the context of “a demographic reality that people in power are frightened by,” as America becomes more and more diverse, thus prompting a reaction he described as centered around “the acquisition and retention of power, with a good dollop of racism.” Specifically, he and Dean Cobb discussed their shared upbringing in Queens. Prior to the Immigration Act of 1965, which rolled back racial quotas and discriminations in American immigration policies, Queens was the second most white borough of New York City. Now, it is the most diverse county in the United States. Dean Cobb recalled that by the time he was old enough to notice the sheer amount of different cultural backgrounds in Queens, such diversity felt normal. Here, the conversation turned to another prominent figure who grew up in Queens, but had a very different relationship with these demographic changes: former president Trump. “Why was Trump so much better at speaking nativism than everyone else on the Republican debate stage? He’d been doing it longer—Queens was a laboratory,” Cobb said. “The Queens I grew up with was predominantly white,” added Holder. “I take the Q48 now to Flushing and it’s like an amalgam of cultures, a fundamentally different place… [Trump’s experience] fused him with a view of the world that he’s acted on… he’s telling folks it’s possible to hold onto that, the reality of his Queens.”

Dean Cobb next asked Attorney General Holder if he saw any differences between national and localized strategies for defending the right to vote. “We need to think of them [together] as one, but with greater emphasis on state strategy,” Holder answered. He brought up how Progressives and Democrats get excited about federal elections, but don’t vote in as great numbers in so-called off-year elections, arguing that “2022 could’ve been a lot better if people had voted in the same numbers as in 2020”. He advocated for the use of federal power to bring about necessary change but noted that “the laws enabled by a renegade Supreme Court take place at the state level, and Democrats and Progressives haven’t focused enough on state laws”— unlike their Republican counterparts, who have sought to curb voting rights most prominently and consequentially at the state level.

Dean Cobb inquired about the prospects of significant legislation to address the state of voting rights. “Between now and January 2025, zero prospects at the federal level,” Attorney General Holder answered. “You can’t get anything out of this House of Representatives, and you couldn’t do it when the Democrats had both the Senate and the House, when two senators wouldn’t do the right thing to do away with the filibuster.” Holder expressed hope for the Democrats retaking the House in 2024, but added that the question of the filibuster would still need to be resolved. Until then, however? “It’s like banging your head against a brick wall. Expending political capital on something that won’t happen. Maybe, then, we focus on what’s going on in the states as the place to spend our efforts.”

He reflected on a particularly consequential judicial case that transpired during his tenure in the Obama administration, one that carries his name (to his great dismay, as he made clear, begging “don’t associate my name with this”). The Supreme Court’s decision in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder weakened federal jurisdiction over states’ voting laws and set the stage for many of the laws passed by Republican state legislatures in recent years. Prompted about his concerns for the state of American democracy, the attorney general minced no words. “I’m very concerned to have one of two parties turning away from democracy, if not turning their back on it, with the authoritarian streak in the Republican party, giving cover to election deniers… [and] with this Supreme Court, with the Shelby County decision and the decision to not hear partisan gerrymandering knocking out the underpinnings that have made democracy better.”

Dean Cobb then drew another connection between the pre-Voting Rights Act America and the current state of our nation. In 2020, Fulton County, in Georgia, home to most of the city of Atlanta, received national attention amidst President Biden’s electoral win in the state, as then-President Trump accused people of rigging the vote against him. Just as the 2020 election hinged on Atlanta, the city and its Black population have been a significant source of electoral power as far back as 1906, when race riots erupted after Black voters were deemed to be turning out for elections in too great a number. “When the Republican Party proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, the objective was to prevent the Confederacy from regaining the political power [they wielded] in 1860 to rip the country in half… They thought the Black vote would be a bulwark against a white supremacist vote threatening to destroy democracy,” Dean Cobb said. In the 2020 election, with both the presidency and the Senate hinging on the returns from Georgia, “Black voters were asked to do the same thing in 2020 as in 1870: to be a bulwark against a white supremacist movement threatening to destroy democracy.”

Attorney General Holder emphasized the need for a coalition broader than simply the Black voters already facing disenfranchisement. “Black folks alone can’t save this country,” he told the audience. “We can be part of a coalition that can stop these negative forces, but it’s gonna take more than that.” He told the story of witnessing the anti-Vietnam War movement firsthand during his time as an undergraduate at Columbia (joking that, having not taken finals until his junior year due to the frequency of strikes, it was disheartening when they couldn’t come up with another strike by the time the end of junior year rolled around). “We didn’t pull out of Vietnam because we reached our objectives,” he stressed; “that war ended because it didn’t have the support, over time, of the American people, and that’s gonna have to happen here.” He also ruminated on what a winning Democratic coalition might look like, noting that no Democratic candidate has won the white vote since Lyndon Johnson. “It’s gonna take significant portions of the [white] majority—though not necessarily a majority of the majority,” he said, in addition to engaging POC communities.

To wrap up the event, Attorney General Holder and Dean Cobb took several questions from audience members. The first, a question about the ramifications of Washington, DC’s lack of statehood (and thus lack of representation in the federal legislature), prompted the attorney general to list two key action items he identified in his book, Our Unfinished March, for enhancing the strength of our democracy: addressing the electoral college, a measure which requires a constitutional amendment, and securing full voting rights for DC and Puerto Rico, a measure which can be passed by Congress and signed by the president.  “[The latter] is morally worth fighting for and politically doable,” Holder said. “There are more people in DC than in several states. It balances out North and South Dakota. Why are there two Dakotas? It was done to secure four senators [for the region] rather than two.”

Another audience member brought up the fact that the 2020 election saw Trump double his share of the Black male vote compared to 2016, offering an explicit reminder to the speakers and the audience that “identity is not enough, we can’t just assume that the Black community will come together around a shared agenda or particular slate of candidates”. Attorney General Holder agreed, also bringing up the fact that deSantis won the diverse, historically blue-voting Miami-Dade County in Florida’s recent gubernatorial election. “Democratic party interaction with appeal to POC communities can’t be episodic,” he said. “You can’t show up at a Black church two weeks before the election and say ‘you need to vote for Joe Biden.’” He stressed the importance of continuous engagement with those in the Black community who voted for Trump or did not vote at all. Dean Cobb added that a higher percentage of Black men voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than they did for Biden in 2020, and that Black men were more likely than any other category of men, by a long shot, to vote for the first female presidential nominee. “2024 will be the best indicator if [sentiment of displacement] is real or not—the dynamic of men feeling like they’ve lost ground has mostly been discussed about white men, but it resonates with Black men, too, who were locked out of the economy due to criminal justice practices upheld by the people they’re about to vote for.”

When asked what it means to ‘save this country’—rhetoric that runs parallel to the messaging of the Make America Great Again movement—the former attorney general confirmed that he believes it will involve not just voting rights, but criminal justice reform, as well as what he termed the ‘reactivation of the Obama coalition’.“ Young people, people of color, a percentage of white people—[Obama] put that coalition together in the way Roosevelt put together a coalition that lasted,” he said, adding that he believes that the Obama coalition has not splintered, but is rather on hiatus. At this point, Dean Cobb began to say something, stopped, laughed, and finally said “I know I shouldn’t ask you this question… but do you see anybody that could be really good at galvanizing that coalition?” Holder responded diplomatically, noting that “it’s hard to pick out that person, that messenger… You don’t look for another Roosevelt—Truman was great, and he wasn’t Roosevelt.” After a moment’s thought, he named Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who he described as a ‘generational talent’, though he voiced his skepticism over whether America is ready for a gay man in the White House), Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (noting that he and other strategists, back in 2018, identified Whitmer as “the most effective, persuasive candidate we worked with”), and California Governor Gavin Newsom (“not given nearly the credit he deserves”) as potential leaders of the coalition of the future. “I just answered a question I probably shouldn’t have,” he added wryly.

Furthermore, he emphasized that this coalition must be an inclusive one, in response to a question about infusing the movement with pan-Africanism (in the style of the civil rights movement and with the African population in the United States growing). “The other side has made peace with the fact that they’re going to be a minority party in terms of popular support, but a majority party in terms of power. We don’t have the luxury of saying certain like-minded people can’t be a part of the coalition, and history teaches us that this is the way for successful coalitions.”

Finally, Holder addressed the Black Law Students Association and the other future legal professionals seated in the lecture hall. “Always think of yourselves as public interest lawyers, no matter where you work,” he advised. “Push your company to get involved in positive ways in communities. Political things, local things… you might join these efforts, but I expect over time you will lead these efforts, and money can’t be the sole objective [in your legal careers].”

The attorney general summed up the tone and rhetoric of the event with an eye on both the past and future of voting rights and the American electorate. “We are better now than we were 50 years ago, and 50 years before that, and we’ve made progress, but I’m concerned that this march of progress is in the process of being halted and potentially even reversed. The 2022 midterms were an indication that things are holding, but it could be an aberration; 2024 could put us in a much worse place.”

Image of Pulitzer Hall via Simon Panfilio