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.
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.
Inside the department, the case had become the priority of former Voting Section chief Christopher Coates, who has contended that the Civil Rights Division is resistant to pursuing claims vindicating the rights of white voters. Coates recently criticized the division's handling of the NBPP case in testimony before the Civil Rights Commission. It's worth noting that although Coates, who now works as a U.S. attorney in South Carolina, had a civil rights background before coming to work at the department (he had been an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union), Schlozman, in recommending Coates for an immigration-judge position, had assured (pdf) superiors not to "be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting rights matters from years ago. This is a very different man" and a "true member of the team."
It's more telling that the NBPP controversy doesn't even pass the "Thernstrom" test. Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the Civil Rights Commission, has long been an opponent of affirmative action and voting remedies that favor minority groups. But even she has broken rank with her conservative colleagues and argued that the brouhaha has nothing to do "with the Black Panthers; this has to do with [the right-wing's] fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration."
In the meantime, the mainstream media have begun to give the conservative claims about the NBPP case greater scrutiny, emboldening the right to continue their drumbeat against Fernandes, Perez and the Civil Rights Division for doing what every administration before that of George W. Bush has done: pursue the vigorous enforcement of our nation's civil rights laws to protect our most vulnerable citizens, making careful decisions about how best to deploy the department's resources.
But under the "new normal," there is no racism worth discussing except that of blacks against whites. No attention has been given to the cases raising voter intimidation against black and Latinos during the Bush years that the Civil Rights Division similarly chose not to pursue (pdf). It is anti-white racism that is our nation's problem.
We had best wake up to this far-right effort to shift the very meaning of civil rights. Sherrod-gate has taught us that we cannot allow ourselves to be "snookered" by media dumps that challenge the integrity and work of some of the most talented members of the Obama administration in an effort to find imaginary "reverse racists" and to usher in a "new normal" in civil rights.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches at the University of Maryland, writes about the law for The Root.