"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder, nation's first black attorney general.
Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, Holder said, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."
He urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for frank talk about racial matters.
"It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable," Holder said. "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."
He told Justice Department employees they have a special responsibility to advance racial understanding.
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