Yes, the Black Panther Case Is Small Potatoes
A reply to Andrew McCarthy.


Almost a month ago, I published a piece in NRO titled “The New Black Panther Case: A Conservative Dissent.” The main thrust of the article — now forgotten by everyone, it seems — was that the Obama Justice Department’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was deeply troubling. I am no fan of Attorney General Eric Holder’s policies, and the voting section had just proposed important new regulations interpreting the statute that will likely result in the widespread racial gerrymandering of legislative districts following the 2010 census. The revised regulations will deeply affect the landscape of American politics for the decade to come — and perhaps beyond — yet they have received scant attention.

In contrast, the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) incident — involving two black racists who showed up at a polling place in a largely black precinct in Philadelphia — has become the focus of a conservative media firestorm, driven in part by accusations of voter intimidation of the kind that were once ubiquitous in the Jim Crow South.

DOJ’s decision to drop the case may have been wrong, I went on to say in my earlier piece. But so far we have only very weak evidence on the matter. There is certainly no direct or hard evidence of either an effective voter-suppression effort or Justice Department indifference to such cases. This was an isolated incident in 2008 that, while involving reprehensible behavior, does not deserve the level of attention it has received when there are much more important questions involving voting-rights enforcement on which to focus. I did not write to defend the Panthers or DOJ, but rather to plead for some perspective on the matter.

In his July 20 NRO piece, Andrew McCarthy offered a rejoinder. He responded not to my larger argument, but just to the Panther issue. Reasonable observers can disagree about this complicated incident, but McCarthy’s screed falls far short of reasonable disagreement, offering superheated and sarcastic rhetoric where evidence and logical analysis are needed. 

McCarthy contends that I have ignored important facts about what happened at the Philadelphia polling place targeted by the NBPP in the November 2008 election. Upon close inspection, these “facts” turn out to be unverifiable assertions.

McCarthy begins by charging me with a glaring inconsistency for allegedly forgetting that I signed a June 2009 letter that took a very different view of the case than the one I now hold. Yes, at that early date I joined other conservative members of the Civil Rights Commission in expressing grave concern about the Justice Department’s handling of the case. In fact, I still have questions about DOJ’s conduct, and I remain interested in knowing more about why the department declined to pursue the case. I would thus join my colleagues in welcoming further testimony. I would love to hear firsthand from Christopher Coates about DOJ’s handling of this case. Similarly, I think the world deserves to know what Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes actually said about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement priorities.

The more I learned about the Black Panther case, however, the more doubtful I became that this was the egregious example of voter intimidation that it first appeared to be. When the Commission decided to make the Philadelphia incident the subject of its annual civil-rights law-enforcement report — the major report we work on throughout the year — I could not support that decision. Whatever the facts turned out to be, I felt, the incident was not of sufficient importance to be the primary focus of our yearlong project. If this small and isolated incident were truly the single most important civil-rights issue in America today, we would have much to celebrate.