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.
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But in his testimony Friday, Coates argued that elements of the Justice Department have become predisposed to overlook any alleged incidents of whites being disenfranchised by minorities. He pointed to the 2006 case as an example.Skip to next paragraph
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The Mississippi case
The Bush administration's decision to force civil rights attorneys to investigate Ike Brown – the black, Democratic official in Mississippi – caused anger. That anger, said Coates, "was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of whites who have been discriminated against."
Under the Obama administration, that sentiment deepened, leading to the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case in 2009, Coates alleged Friday. A Clinton appointee who also served under Bush and was appointed voting rights section chief in 2008, Coates accused the Justice Department of kowtowing to civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which wanted both the Ike Brown and the New Black Panther Party cases dropped, he said.
Coates also asked the commission to see the New Black Panther Party case in racially reversed terms. If the Justice Department had dropped a case involving two robed Klansmen patrolling a polling booth, the outcry would have been deafening, he said.
Dropping the New Black Panther Party case, he said in his testimony, "was intended to send a direct message to people inside and outside the civil rights division. That message is that the filing of voting cases like the Ike Brown and the NBPP cases would not continue in the Obama administration."
Coates also said that before his resignation in 2009, a senior political official ordered him to stop asking job candidates if they'd be willing to prosecute equal-protection cases against whites as well as blacks.
Justice Department's rebuttal
Tom Perez, the current attorney general for civil rights, has denied Coates's claims. He told the Civil Rights Commission in May that the New Black Panther Party case was handled appropriately. In a July letter, Mr. Perez added that the civil rights division is "firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators."
A conservative member of the Civil Rights Commission, Abigail Thernstrom, has also defended the Justice Department's handling of the case.
"This doesn't have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with [conservative] fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the administration," Ms. Thernstrom told Politico last month.
The case could damage the Obama administration, says Mr. Lichtman at American University. But he also argues that most Americans understand that the Voting Rights Act was intended to correct gross and historic injustices, not nit-pick along partisan lines.
"You can try to force [the Voting Rights Act] to be equal, but it's not," he says. "If these are the worst examples you can find, then, by God, white people in America are pretty safe."