On Election Day 2008, Maruse Heath, the leader of Philadelphia’s New Black Panther Party, stood in front of a neighborhood polling place, dressed in a paramilitary uniform.
Within hours, an amateur video showing Heath, slapping a black nightstick and exchanging words with the videographer, had aired on TV and ricocheted across the nation.
Among those who saw the footage was J. Christian Adams, who was in his office in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington.
“I thought, ‘This is wrong, this is not supposed to happen in this country,'” Adams said. “There are armed men in front of a polling place, and I need to find out if they violated the law, because in my mind there’s a good chance that they did.”
The clash between the black nationalist and the white lawyer has mushroomed into a fierce debate over the government’s enforcement of civil rights laws, a dispute that will be aired next week when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights unveils findings from a year-long investigation.
Interviews and government documents reviewed by The Washington Post show that the case tapped into deep divisions within the Justice Department that persist today over whether the agency should focus on protecting historically oppressed minorities or enforce laws without regard to race.
In recent months, Adams and a Justice Department colleague have said the case was dismissed because the department is reluctant to pursue cases against minorities accused of violating the voting rights of whites. Three other Justice Department lawyers, in recent interviews, gave the same description of the department’s culture, which department officials strongly deny.
Deepening a divide
Since the division was created in 1957, most of its [DOJ’s Civil Rights Division] cases have been filed on behalf of minorities. But there has not always been agreement about that approach.
Civil rights officials from the Bush administration have said that enforcement should be race-neutral. But some officials from the Obama administration, which took office vowing to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement, thought the agency should focus primarily on cases filed on behalf of minorities.
Before the New Black Panther controversy, another case had inflamed those passions. Ike Brown, an African American political boss in rural Mississippi, was accused by the Justice Department in 2005 of discriminating against the county’s white minority. It was the first time the 1965 Voting Rights Act was used against minorities and to protect whites.