What Is The NBPP Story Really About?


Eisenhower signing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, creating the Civil Rights Division.

Fresh off of suggesting The Washington Post should screen new hires for the thought crime of private personal opinion, Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander chides the newspaper for not catching on quicker to the New Black Panther Party controversy, the day it mostly fell to pieces:

The Post didn't cover it. Indeed, until Thursday's story, The Post had written no news stories about the controversy this year. In 2009, there were passing references to it in only three stories.

That's prompted many readers to accuse The Post of a double standard. Royal S. Dellinger of Olney said that if the controversy had involved Bush administration Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, "Lord, there'd have been editorials and stories, and it would go on for months."

To be sure, ideology and party politics are at play. Liberal bloggers have accused Adams of being a right-wing activist (he insisted to me Friday that his sole motivation is applying civil rights laws in a race-neutral way). Conservatives appointed during the Bush administration control a majority of the civil rights commission's board. And Fox News has used interviews with Adams to push the story. Sarah Palin has weighed in via Twitter, urging followers to watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's coverage because "her revelations leave Left steaming."

I've been covering this story since last year so I would never suggest it's not worth covering. But my beef with Alexander is that he's implicitly suggesting that whether or not the story is worth covering depends on how it fits a particular Republican frame.

For me, the NBPP story has always been part of a larger story about change in the Civil Rights Division, which under Bush was a place that purged 70 percent of its attorneys, hired conservative activists for career positions, declined to intervene on behalf of people of color on matters of voting rights and employment discrimination, and mostly turned its back while banks hocked "ghetto loans" to blacks and Latinos. Now it's the kind of place that created a Fair Lending Unit to go after predatory lenders. Disappointed liberals looking for change provided by the Obama administration? The Civil Rights Division filed 29 employment-discrimination cases through March of this year. (At this point during the Bush administration, the Civil Rights Division had filed one.) The people who were running the place during the decline in enforcement under Bush are the same ones complaining about the Obama Justice Department today. 

Again, there's a story here, but it's not about the politicization of the Civil Rights Division under Obama. It's about the Civil Rights Division under Obama going back to doing what it used to do -- aggressively protecting Americans' civil rights, regardless of who they are. But none of that, not even an acknowledgment that the Bush administration's stewardship of the Justice Department was marred by incontrovertible evidence of politicization, is relevant to Alexander's reading of the story. He focuses entirely on the Post's failure to faithfully reproduce the conservative framing of an unraveling partisan narrative. During his recent testimony before the Civil Rights Commission, J. Christian Adams complained about a superior stating that "we were in the business of doing traditional civil rights work," adding, "of course, everybody knows what that means, and helping minorities, helping litigating on their behalf."

"Traditional civil rights work." Outrageous.

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