Racial cowardice, thy name is Eric Holder. For those who don't remember, Attorney General H. Holder Jr. had the gall last February to claim that Americans form "a nation of cowards" with regard to racial issues. Saying that this nation must examine its "racial soul" and that "we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race," Mr. Holder explicitly vowed to "have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us." In that same context, he also vowed repeatedly last year to "restore" the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to a supposedly renewed focus on protecting minority rights.
Yet Mr. Holder was far from explicit about exactly what he meant. Judging from the Civil Rights Division's actions - and now from a highly revealing speech by a newly exiled member of the division - it appears that the civil rights of blacks and Latinos will be protected but those of whites and Asians are treated as irrelevant. Far from having a "frank conversation" about that highly problematic change in policy, Mr. Holder's Justice Department instead is hiding the change behind bureaucratic smokescreens, spurious claims of legal "privileges" and outright gag orders.
Mr. Holder knows that his sea change in law enforcement would be highly unpopular if discussed openly - and would be subject to serious legal challenge if openly tested in a court of law. Hence his fear, his cowardice, on the issue.
The smoking gun is the department's refusal to fully sanction members of the New Black Panther Party who were charged with voter intimidation for brandishing a nightstick and using threatening racial language at a polling place during the 2008 presidential election. In this case, Mr. Holder appeared to be undermining equal justice under the law by refusing to protect the civil rights of white voters. Now comes one of the key attorneys in that case to confirm that analysis.
The attorney in question, Christopher Coates, was transferred suddenly to South Carolina after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights tried to subpoena his testimony with regard to the Black Panther case, which Mr. Coates helped oversee. Mr. Coates is known to have objected to the Obama-Holder team's decision to drop three of the four charges and play softball on the fourth.
Mr. Coates ought to have great credibility because nobody can accuse him of being a conservative ideologue. A former American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has won major awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Georgia Environmental Organization and the Justice Department itself, Mr. Coates has made a career of advocating for the rights of black Americans. Yet when he tried to do the same for white voters (and some black ones, too) intimidated by the weapon-wielding Black Panthers, he was hounded, ordered to ignore a subpoena and ultimately exiled.
As reported by the Heritage Foundation's Hans A. von Spakovsky, writing at National Review Online, here's a close paraphrase of what Mr. Coates said to his colleagues at his going-away party:
"A plain reading of the statutory language of the Voting Rights Act indicates that it is aimed at protecting all American voters from racial discrimination and voter intimidation and is not limited to protecting only racial-minority or language-minority voters. ... [Indeed,] the race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is imperative to the holding of racially fair elections. ... For the Department of Justice to enforce the Voting Rights Act only to protect members of certain minority groups breaches the fundamental guarantee of equal protection, and could substantially erode public support for the Voting Rights Act itself. ..."
Yet, Mr. Coates noted elsewhere in his remarks, there are those - obviously at the Justice Department itself - who have argued that the department should take into account "disparities between the socioeconomic levels of black and white residents" and "who want to continue to enforce the Voting Rights Act in a racially biased fashion and to turn a blind eye whenever incidents arise that indicate that minority persons have acted improperly in voting matters."
That's exactly what happened in the Black Panther case, quite obviously by now with Mr. Holder's acquiescence. It also is what happened when the Obama-Holder team dropped a case against the state of Missouri for not clearing its voting lists of people who had died. It is what happened when the new administration refused to let the majority-black town of Kinston, N.C., by its own choice, hold nonpartisan municipal elections - with the Justice Department deciding that Kinston's blacks apparently were too stupid to know for whom to vote if the Democratic Party label weren't on the ballot.
The Holder Justice Department likewise argued mostly in favor of the town of New Haven, Conn., when it denied promotions to white firefighters who had earned them. Its new Civil Rights Division chief, Thomas Perez, made a point in his inaugural remarks of saying that the department's focus would be on protecting traditional minorities along with Muslim- and Arab-Americans, abortion doctors and "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals." The rights of others, though, got short shrift.
If that is indeed to be his department's new policy - civil rights protection for me but not for thee - Mr. Holder should be willing to say so openly rather than refusing to let his department answer inquiries - from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and prominent congressmen - on the Black Panther case or on broader discrimination issues.
Openness to such inquiries, and to broader public scrutiny, might take courage. Unfortunately, courage is a character trait in short supply in Mr. Holder's breast.