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Is the Department of Justice Racist?

Being racist—or discriminating along racial lines—means treating people differently because of the color of their skin or race. Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, America has made great strides towards eliminating racism in our society.

But the dream of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was not that whites would someday get the same wrong treatment and abuse that black Americans had faced. His dream was that as a nation, all races, religions, and genders would be treated equally, with respect, fairness and justice.

Unfortunately, it appears that the federal agency tasked with ensuring equality under the law has itself adopted a policy of racial discrimination when it comes to civil rights enforcement.

On Election Day 2008, members of the New Black Panther Party were videotaped intimidating voters at a polling place in Philadelphia. They stood at the entrance, wearing military-style uniforms and hurling threats at poll watchers like, “now you will know what it means to be ruled by the black man, cracker.” One of the New Black Panther Party members was brandishing a nightstick. According to reports, some voters turned away out of fear.

The Justice Department, under the Bush Administration, charged three members of the New Black Panther Party and the organization itself with violating the Voting Rights Act. The Department effectively won the case by default after the defendants did not appear in court.

But rather than pursuing the case and preventing the New Black Panther Party and its members from engaging in future voter intimidation, the Justice Department dropped the lawsuit against all but one of the defendants and sought weak, temporary prohibitions against future acts of intimidation.

No facts had changed. No new evidence had been found. The only thing that had changed was the political party running the Justice Department. Apparently, Attorney General Eric Holder saw no reason to pursue a case of blatant voter intimidation. The decision was so out of character for the Justice Department, it raised suspicions that politics had played a role.

For more than a year, the public and Members of Congress have been asking for the Justice Department to explain why it decided to drop the charges in a case it had already won. Our request is not unusual. When DOJ suddenly dropped the case against former Senator Ted Stevens, the Attorney General explained the decision to the public, saying that the case should be dismissed due to missteps by the prosecution.


In deciding to drop voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, the Justice Department had a responsibility to similarly explain its reasoning to the American people. Instead, the Justice Department has met our requests for information with silence.

Had the defendants been members of the Ku Klux Klan, I doubt the Justice Department would have dropped the charges. This appears to be a case of reverse discrimination. And by not fully prosecuting the case, the Justice Department has sent the message that voter intimidation of white voters is acceptable.

In fact, according to allegations made by a former Civil Rights Division attorney, that appears to be the stated policy of the Justice Department. On July 6, 2010, J. Christian Adams, a former career Department attorney assigned to the New Black Panther Party trial team, testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the events surrounding the Department’s May 2009 dismissal of the lawsuit.

Mr. Adams testified under oath that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes instructed Voting Section attorneys that “cases are not going to be brought against black defendants [for] the benefit of white victims.”

If this statement is true, it means that the agency charged with enforcing our civil rights laws—the Justice Department—itself has a policy of racial discrimination.

Even the Washington Post has taken notice of the case’s importance and the media’s refusal to investigate and report on the matter. As the Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander wrote on Sunday, July 18, “If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his department are not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed.”

We must get to the bottom of why these charges were dropped and restore openness, transparency and integrity to our voting process.

A founding principle of this nation is equality under the law. If the U.S. Department of Justice won’t enforce it, who will?

Republican Lamar Smith represents Texas’ 21st district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.

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