Feb. 18, 2009— -- The United States is "a nation of cowards" when it comes to race relations, the country's newly minted attorney general said today.
In remarks made during a speech to honor Black History Month, Eric Holder said the country remains "voluntarily socially segregated," making head-turning comments that could spark fierce dialogue and the ire of some conservatives.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.
"This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle, it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race-conscious, and yet is voluntarily socially segregated."
Holder become the nation's first black attorney general earlier this month.
Addressing reporters after the speech, Holder, 57, said his comments were "a question of being honest," adding that "we have to have the guts" to talk about race issues instead of avoiding them.
"It is an easy thing not to talk about these things. It is a painful thing to discuss them," said Holder, who was raised in New York City by parents whose roots are in Barbados.
In turn, Holder pledged to boost the work and mission of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, saying, "It's a division that has not gotten the attention it deserves, the resources it deserves, and people have not been given a sense of mission."
While Holder spoke about the masses spending more time together, ABC News polls show there has been sharply increased social interaction between black and white Americans in the past few decades. In June, 79 percent of whites reported having a "fairly close personal friend" who's black, up from 54 percent in 1981. Ninety-two percent of blacks reported having a white friend, up from 69 percent a generation ago.
Similarly, a 2005 poll found that 48 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks said someone in their family had brought a friend of the other race home for dinner -- also far higher than when the data series began in 1973.
Still, three-quarters of African-Americans say they've personally experienced racial discrimination.
AG Reflects on Obama Speech, Discusses Future Plans
Holder also referenced a speech President Obama gave during the presidential campaign in addressing the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I think that the speech the president gave in Philadelphia was really an opening for us, and one that I think we really have to exploit," Holder said today. "It has to be seen as an opportunity and the beginning of a process that I think can actually heal the racial division that has long separated us as a people.
"We have made a lot of progress. The fact that we have an African-American attorney general, an African-American president, I think, is extremely significant. But it is not an indication that all of the problems that we have confronted as a nation over the years are now resolved," he said.
"I think we have an obligation. We have to continue the fight of all the people who I mentioned in my speech to really kind of ultimately get this nation to the place where I think it can and should be."
After his speech, Holder also said he would be heading to Guantanamo Bay next week, accompanied by acting head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, Matthew Olsen.
"We need to have our feet on the ground to really see what is really going on at that facility, to see how people are being detained, to talk to people down there about the interrogation techniques being used," Holder said.
As part of Obama's executive order to eventually close the facility, Holder has been tasked with chairing the committee to implement Guantanamo's closure.
Holder will coordinate the review of the controversial detention facility with other Cabinet officials from the departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security as well as the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
ABC News' Gary Langer contributed to this story.