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New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case: 'Bombshell' for Obama?

The Civil Rights Commission is investigating claims that the Justice Department inappropriately dropped an investigation into alleged voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party.

By Staff writer / September 24, 2010

Members of the New Black Panthers Party raise their arms during a demonstration against a neo-Nazi group in Los Angeles City Hall on April 17. The Justice Department dropped an investigation into whether members of the group intimidated white voters in Philadelphia in 2008.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Newscom/file

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When Department of Justice attorneys traveled to investigate a voter intimidation allegation against a black politician in Mississippi's Noxubee County in 2006, one civil rights staff attorney commented, "Can you believe we're going to Mississippi to protect white voters?"

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To Christopher Coates, the former head of the Department of Justice's voting rights section, the comment was more than just an attempt at irony – it was evidence that something was going wrong in the department.

On Friday, Mr. Coates testified before the US Civil Rights Commission, a bipartisan oversight group, alleging that under President Obama, the dismissive attitude of that civil rights staff attorney toward white claims of disenfranchisement at the hands of blacks has essentially become Justice Department policy. He said he had seen evidence that Obama appointees in the Department of Justice had created a "hostile atmosphere" toward attorneys pushing to prosecute blacks for voting-rights violations – a charge the Justice Department denies.

The current Civil Rights Commission investigation is specifically focusing on why Justice Department attorneys dropped charges against two New Black Panther Party members who brandished a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.

For some conservative critics of the Obama administration, the case is seen as a smoking gun – damning proof that the nation's first black president doesn't take black racism seriously. The PowerLine blog called Coates's testimony a "bombshell." Defenders of the civil rights division say Coates is bitter because he was unable to turn the organization toward policies that they say would ultimately hurt black voters.

More deeply, though, the controversy suggests that two fundamentally different views of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are coming into conflict. Is it a document aimed at redressing the concerns of all disenfranchised voters, or is it specifically crafted to thwart historic prejudices against minorities?

As a practical matter, disenfranchisement claims against blacks remain the exception.

The New Black Panther Party case "is the backlash of the powerful," says Allan Lichtman, a voting rights expert at American University in Washington. "Of course, if you search, you can find examples of reverse discrimination, but the overwhelming brunt of discrimination still falls on minorities."

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