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?"
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."
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.
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."