Image: Barack Obama, Eric Holder
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Attorney General Eric Holder, seen here with President Barack Obama, last month said the U.S. is "essentially a nation of cowards" on racial issues.
updated 3/7/2009 6:06:25 PM ET 2009-03-07T23:06:25

President Barack Obama says he would not have used the same language that Eric Holder did last month when the attorney general declared that the United States is a nation of cowards on matters of race.

"We've made enormous progress and we shouldn't lose sight of that," Obama told The New York Times in an interview posted on the newspaper's Web site Saturday.

The president said he understood Holder to be saying the country often is uncomfortable talking about race until there's a racial flare-up or conflict and that the nation probably could be more constructive in facing up to slavery and discrimination.

The first U.S. black president gently departed from the tone of the comments by the country's first black attorney general.

The president said he is not someone who believes that constantly talking about race can solve racial tensions. To address that problem, it will mean fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care and ensuring that children are learning, Obama said.

"I think if we do that, then we'll probably have more fruitful conversations," Obama said in the interview Friday aboard Air Force One.

In a speech to Justice Department employees marking Black History Month, Holder said that while the country 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."

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