Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said Wednesday the United States was "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid discussions of racial issues.
In a speech to Justice Department employees marking Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate on the weekends and in their private lives.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said.
Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."
Holder cited that speech by Obama as part of the motivation for his words Wednesday, saying Americans need to overcome an ingrained inhibition against talking about race.
"If we're going to ever make progress, we're going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified," Holder told reporters after the speech.
Race, Holder said, "is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable... If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."
Even when people mix at the workplace or afterwork social events, Holder argued, many Americans in their free time are still segregated inside what he called "race-protected cocoons."
"Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad," said Holder.