The Campaign to Destroy Civil Rights Enforcement

The far right's obsession with the New Black Panther Party is part of a broader campaign to prevent the U.S. Justice Department from protecting minorities from discrimination.

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The line moved by the administration of George W. Bush -- on torture, on civil liberties, even on what constitutes competence for a presidential candidate -- has had long-term and perhaps permanent effects on our political landscape. Case in point: that administration's takeover and dismantling of the finest civil rights law-enforcement organization in the country: the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). As documented in the 2008 inspector general's report reviewing (pdf) hiring policies at the division, Bush administration apparatchiks worked to systematically undermine the integrity of hiring and, in some cases, the work of the Civil Rights Division.

Using crude and ugly political litmus tests for hiring, the leaders at the division set about dismantling what had been the long-standing excellence and relatively nonpolitical work of federal civil rights enforcement. Among the key culprits was then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bradley Schlozman, who was aided by senior counsel to the attorney general, Monica Goodling, in rigidly controlling what kinds of lawyers would be hired by the division.

Correspondence between Scholzman and Goodling reads like e-mails between the new leaders of some obnoxious high school club. Schlozman wanted to hire only "real Americans" -- not Democrats, or even attorneys who had actual experience in civil rights enforcement and litigation. Schlozman deemed (pdf) such candidates to be "Politburo members" or members of "psychopathic left-wing organizations designed to overthrow the government."

He also disfavored applicants from the nation's most highly regarded law schools. Instead, Schlozman wanted the Civil Rights Division to consider applicants with an "insurance" background and to consider more applicants from third-tier law schools. His accomplice, Goodling, also endorsed hiring only right-wing applicants, no matter how thin their résumés, so long as they were -- in her words -- "loyal Bushies." It was as though Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin were in charge of hiring at the nation's most powerful and important civil rights enforcement organization.

The Obama administration faced a daunting task in taking over the division. Morale among career attorneys was low. In fact, many career lawyers who had been with the division for decades -- including many hired during Republican administrations -- had left in disgust with the venal, political calculation that had taken hold of decision making in the division. The IG's report found that Schlozman had used "political and ideological affiliation in transferring and assigning cases to career attorneys" within the division. The core mission of the division -- to protect the civil rights of racial and language minorities -- had also been diminished in favor of a new focus on human trafficking and religious discrimination cases.

Now the Obama administration has come under attack for undoing the damage done to the division during the Bush administration. Fox News and other conservative outlets have focused attacks since last summer on Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes, a highly respected civil rights lawyer and former DOJ trial attorney, whom they've accused of racism. Their evidence? Reports of an internal meeting with staff at the Civil Rights Division, where Fernandes is reported to have stated that the department would be returning to focus to "traditional civil rights" work.

J. Christian Adams, a former Civil Rights Division attorney and Republican activist hired by Schlozman, testified (pdf) before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that "everyone knows what that means … helping minorities." It is an astonishing reflection of how far peddlers of "reverse racism" have pushed the public discourse about civil rights, that this has been deemed evidence of racial bias. Yes, according to those on the far right, it is now racist for the Civil Rights Division to focus on the prosecution of traditional civil rights claims.

In fact, the division was created precisely to prosecute cases involving the deprivation of the civil rights of racial minorities. Fernandes' directive, if, in fact, it was given, is an eminently responsible and unremarkable position for the attorney general to take in determining how to deploy the division's limited but critically important resources. The Bush administration's approach to the division's hiring and work was an aberration -- one that those on the hard right, through their attacks on Fernandes, are seeking to have adopted as the "new normal."

It is in this context that one has to regard the right-wing obsession with the "New Black Panther Party" case. This is the case that has become the cause célèbre of the right in their latest effort to brand the Obama administration as a reverse-racist regime. On Election Day in 2008, two black men calling themselves the New Black Panther Party (not affiliated with the Black Panther Party) stood outside a polling place in a majority black district in Philadelphia, wielding a billy club and yelling anti-white racist statements. Although no voters called the Department of Justice to complain, a white poll watcher for the Republican Party reported the incident, and it was recorded by a local Republican Party official, who contacted news stations.

It seems of little importance to conservatives that almost all of the actions taken by the DOJ -- dropping criminal charges against the NBPP in favor of civil charges, and later settling the civil case -- took place before Fernandes joined the department and during the period that Republicans were dragging their feet in confirming Thomas Perez as the new assistant attorney general for civil rights.