For decades, the face of the criminal justice system in this country has been black and male: hundreds of thousands locked behind bars, arrested in disproportionate numbers and facing execution at rates far greater than those for the general population.
This week, Eric H. Holder Jr.'s swearing-in as the nation's first black attorney general and its top law enforcement official came weighted with heavy expectation that the system could change.
Known as a prosecutor who was unflinchingly tough on crime, Holder, 58, is also a former civil rights lawyer who has mentored young black men. Many advocates view him as the best chance in decades to right what they consider unchecked racial injustice and insensitivity by federal officials.
'A person who gets it'
Civil rights advocates are already outlining a long list of priorities, including changing laws that lead to disproportionate prison terms for blacks, ending racial profiling and stepping up the policing of discrimination in employment and housing.
"The most important thing is that we have a person who gets it," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. "He understands that the purpose of incarceration is not just punishment and protection but it is also redemption. He understands that people shouldn't be targeted because of what they look like but because of what they do. He understands that enforcing civil rights serves the interest of law enforcement. It's not about what he looks like, it's about what he believes."
Holder will oversee civil rights enforcement, crime prevention and racial justice -- issues with a broad impact and audience -- among many competing priorities in an agency that also plays a central role in fighting terrorism and policing corporate abuse. Fixing decades of perceived injustices is a difficult task at any time but will be especially challenging for Holder now, when government budgets have tightened and scarce money is allocated to national security and defense efforts.
In public statements since his nomination, Holder has emphasized civil rights enforcement, but he has not indicated a desire to plunge headlong into broad changes to the criminal laws. Civil rights enforcement represents a fraction of the Justice Department's wide-ranging responsibilities.
As he settles in during his first days in office, Holder said his personal story will inevitably shape his view of the job. His father served in World War II and was forced to stand in a segregated railroad car, Holder said. His grandmother was not allowed to sit at the counter at Woolworth in New Jersey. His sister-in-law was on the front lines of integrating the University of Alabama.
"As someone who witnessed the civil rights movement and whose family members literally suffered through the evils of segregation, I hope I can bring a unique perspective to the department," he said. "This department has played a historic role in civil rights over the years, and I owe it to those who came before me and to the American people I serve to oversee a vigorous enforcement program that deals with the realities we confront today."
A hard-nosed, law-and-order prosecutor
On issues of crime and punishment, Holder brings his background as a hard-nosed, law-and-order prosecutor. As a U.S. attorney in the District, he lobbied for tougher minimum sentences for drug offenders but later changed course on nonviolent criminals, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based group that calls for changing the sentencing system.
In his time away from the office, friends say, Holder worried about young black men caught up in the criminal justice system.
In the 1980s, he and his fellow public corruption prosecutor Reid H. Weingarten began to volunteer at the Oak Hill juvenile detention center. And as the crack epidemic ravaged the District in the mid-1980s, Holder became an early member of the local chapter of Concerned Black Men, a mentoring group founded to provide positive black male role models. From the judge's bench, he sent scores of young black men to prison, but in his chambers, he hosted children involved in the mentoring program.
At one of the group's fundraisers, Holder met his wife, prominent Washington obstetrician Sharon Malone. He still makes financial contributions to the organization, said Executive Director George L. Garrow Jr.
"We like to believe that we've helped him keep in touch with the community," Garrow said.
Holder's presence at the top of the Justice Department, along with his history, sends a powerful signal, said Larry Thompson, who succeeded Holder as the second black deputy attorney general.
"You bring your full self to the job, your experiences, your background," he said.
President Obama and Holder have vowed to restore public faith in the department, which was plagued by political hiring scandals during the years that George W. Bush was president. Last month, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine exposed hiring abuses and racial insults at the civil rights division, underscoring persistent complaints from Democrats that it had lost its way as the nation's premier protector of the rights of African Americans.
The black community's relationship with the department has long been complicated. The distrust of law enforcement organizations was increased by the FBI, which for years harassed and spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the same time, activists have taken pride in the glory days of the civil rights division, which was established in 1957. Over the next decade, the department helped protect Freedom Riders and students seeking to break color barriers at state universities.
For criminal justice activists, a pressing concern has been sentencing disparities for convicts caught with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Possession of crack carries longer criminal penalties, and 80 percent of people prosecuted for crack offenses have been African American, according to the Sentencing Project. Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to end the sentencing disparity.
But when Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) asked Holder at his confirmation hearing to work with Congress to promote more fairness in sentencing laws, he responded with the cool of a longtime judge and prosecutor: "We have to be tough. We have to be smart. And we have to be fair. Our criminal justice system has to be fair. It has to be viewed as being fair."
The sentence disparities have combined with social and economic factors to lead to the increasing number of African Americans in prison, a figure that has grown from 100,000 in 1954 -- the year of the Supreme Court's seminal school desegregation case -- to 900,000 today, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
"When we look at the prison system, it's a much worse situation than we had seen before the rise of the modern-day civil rights movement," said Mark Mauer, executive director of the group. "If current trends continue, one of every three black males today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. It is one in every six for Hispanic men."
Locally, four out of five D.C. prisoners are black men.
Holder seldom broaches the topic of race directly, but in a 1997 National Public Radio interview conducted soon after his appointment as the Justice Department's second in command, he shared a quote by the late Samuel Proctor, a pastor in Harlem, that he carried in his wallet.
"It says that blackness is another issue entirely apart from class in America," Holder said. "No matter how affluent, educated and mobile a black person becomes, his race defines him more particularly than anything else."