By Steve Bates
Violence and racial strife must be addressed head-on if the United States is to continue to be a beacon of hope throughout the world, former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Employment Law & Legislative Conference on March 15 in Washington, D.C.
“We’re way off the charts” compared with the rest of the developed world when it comes to mass shootings, he told a packed breakfast meeting on the second full day of the conference, which is designed to help HR professionals stay ahead of fast-moving changes in the legal and regulatory landscape. “It’s an issue that we as a nation have to come to grips with.”
Holder, who was the nation’s first black attorney general, serving from 2009 to 2015, is now a partner with the law firm Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. In a conversation with SHRM President and CEO Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, Holder said he respected Americans’ right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. But Holder observed: “Far too many people have guns who shouldn’t have them. … At some point we’re going to have to get beyond the strength of the gun lobby to deal with an issue that results in too many unnecessary deaths.”
He described one of his worst days as the nation’s top law enforcement official: a visit to Newtown, Conn., immediately after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. He toured the scene of the crime with first responders and investigators, noticing children’s drawings on a classroom wall smeared with blood. After the visit, the first responders and investigators were crying, and “I was crying.” Holder and President Barack Obama soon pushed gun control legislation. The inability to get such a bill through Congress “was the signature failure of my time as attorney general,” said Holder.
Meanwhile, he said, the number of incarcerated Americans remains too high. “We have a broken criminal justice system,” Holder proclaimed. “We put too many people in jail for too long for no legitimate law enforcement reason.” More severe sentences for black individuals than for white individuals “is a very serious problem. It breeds disrespect for the justice system,” he added.
Race is difficult to discuss rationally, but the discussion is overdue, said Holder. “We have become adept at avoiding the issue.” He said he would like to see forums “where people feel safe to come and express their opinions without worrying that they are politically incorrect.” Furthermore, he said, “If we base policies on those kinds of conversations, we’ll be in a better place.”
‘Banning the Box’
Holder noted that the issues of crime and race impact HR professionals. He said he favors measures that prohibit employers from asking questions about criminal history on job applications. “ ‘Banning the box’ makes sense,” he said. Sometime after the initial screening process, HR can ask job-relevant questions about prior convictions, he said. For example, a school system has a clear right to know if an applicant has a history of child molestation or other convictions.
Nevertheless, said Holder: “Some people do turn their lives around” and should be given a second chance if they demonstrate that they can perform a job. He told attendees: “You all should be involved in the policymaking” about such matters.
Other Critical Employment Issues
Holder said he thought that President Obama would nominate a Supreme Court justice any day, possibly a federal appeals court judge recently confirmed by Congress. However, given the political tension in Washington, D.C., “I don’t see how it works for that person to get a vote” for confirmation in the Senate during 2016. Holder was also pessimistic about the chances for immigration reform legislation in 2016, but he said Congress must deal with the issue after the fall elections. “The consciousness of the nation has been raised” by the presidential campaign, he stated.
The Affordable Care Act likely won’t be abolished overnight no matter the outcome of this year’s election, said Holder. “What would you tell those 13 or 15 million people?” Holder said he did see the possibility of several unrelated executive actions being rescinded if a Republican wins the White House. He acknowledged that the nation is polarized, but he observed: “I would hope that we will get beyond at least some of this partisanship.”
Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.