Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Who's protected?

There's an interesting article here about the Voting Rights Act being used in eastern Mississippi to protect whites against alleged abuses by a powerful black political operative.
Ike Brown is a legend in Mississippi politics, a fast-talking operative both loved and hated for his ability to turn out black voters and get his candidates into office.

That success has also landed him at the heart of a federal lawsuit that's about to turn the Voting Rights Act on its end.

For the first time, the U.S. Justice Department is using the 1965 law to allege racial discrimination against whites.

Brown, head of the Democratic Party in Mississippi's rural Noxubee County, is accused of waging a campaign to defeat white voters and candidates with tactics including intimidation and coercion. Also named in the lawsuit is Circuit Clerk Carl Mickens, who has agreed to refrain from rejecting white voters' absentee ballots considered defective while accepting similar ballots from black voters.


The Justice Department complaint says Brown and those working with him "participated in numerous racial appeals during primary and general campaigns and have criticized black citizens for supporting white candidates and for forming biracial political coalitions with white candidates."
Brown is dismissive of the charges, claiming that the only reason people are targeting him is that he's been so politically successful. That may well be the case. I don't know Brown and I don't know the area in question. But if the allegations prove to be true, they point to the nastier side of racial identity politics. Furthermore, they sound like the kind of tactics that the segregationists used in the South in the bad old days*, though the shoe seems to have shifted to the other foot, so to speak.

But for my money, this is the most interesting part of the story:
The federal case against Brown, scheduled for trial this fall, represents a change in direction in the use of the Voting Rights Act, says Jon Greenbaum, director of the voting rights project for the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The law was written to protect racial minorities in the 1960s when Mississippi and other Southern states strictly enforced segregation.

"The main concern we have in the civil rights community isn't necessarily that that DOJ brought this case," Greenbaum says. "It's that the department is not bringing meritorious cases on behalf of African-American and Native American voters."
Now, the area in question, Noxubee County, is 69 percent black and 30 percent white, according to the article. If there's a "meritorious" case to be made that the votes of a white minority population are being supressed through means that violate federal law, shouldn't Greenbaum and his group be just as concerned as they would be if the victims were black or Native American? Call me paranoid, but if the reverse were true, wouldn't the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law be howling for blood?

I guess the real question is: when it comes to racial identity politics, are some minorities more worthy of protection than others?

*Update: I should note that the article does not mention violence or other physical intimidation, which was, of course, a widespread problem during the segregationist days. The situation is not, thus, exactly equivalent, though it is troubling.

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