The current Civil Rights Commission investigation is specifically focusing on why Justice Department attorneys dropped charges against two New Black Panther Party members who brandished a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.
For some conservative critics of the Obama administration, the case is seen as a smoking gun – damning proof that the nation's first black president doesn't take black racism seriously. The PowerLine blog called Coates's testimony a "bombshell." Defenders of the civil rights division say Coates is bitter because he was unable to turn the organization toward policies that they say would ultimately hurt black voters.
More deeply, though, the controversy suggests that two fundamentally different views of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are coming into conflict. Is it a document aimed at redressing the concerns of all disenfranchised voters, or is it specifically crafted to thwart historic prejudices against minorities?
As a practical matter, disenfranchisement claims against blacks remain the exception.
The New Black Panther Party case "is the backlash of the powerful," says Allan Lichtman, a voting rights expert at American University in Washington. "Of course, if you search, you can find examples of reverse discrimination, but the overwhelming brunt of discrimination still falls on minorities."