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When the House voted Thursday to find Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress, members of the Congressional Black Caucus walked out.

Why is the Black Caucus trying to make this about race?

It’s about Holder’s refusal to turn over Justice Department documents requested by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in its investigation of the Fast and Furious operation.

Fast and Furious was a “gun-walking” operation conducted by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). ATF would allow known smugglers to purchase arms from dealers in Arizona with the idea that they would trace them to their destination to operatives in drug cartels in Mexico.

Before the vote, Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., appeared on CNN calling the House contempt vote “silly and detrimental to one human being.” On MSNBC he told Al Sharpton, “This is partisanship at its most base level.”

Sure, it’s an election year. And if you had to stretch to appreciate the complaint against Holder being made by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House committee doing the investigation, you might buy Cleaver’s claim that this is just Republican political grandstanding.

But you don’t have to stretch to appreciate the case against Holder.

It seems pretty clear Fast and Furious was a botched operation. The ATF lost track of some 2,000 weapons that disappeared into the hands of criminals in Mexico. In December 2010, weapons traced to this operation were found on smugglers who murdered U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry. Others were tied to the murder of at least 200 Mexican citizens.

The investigation into these ATF activities began with inquiries by ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, after Agent Terry’s murder.

The Justice Department, in a letter to Sen. Grassley, initially denied the existence of gun-walking operations. But this picture changed when ATF whistleblowers brought facts to the contrary to light. Subsequently, Justice withdrew its letter, saying its denial of the existence of these operations was mistaken.

Inconsistencies in Holder’s testimony before the House committee produced further reasons for suspicion. And then Holder stonewalled for months, refusing to produce the documentation the House committee requested.

Whether there is a fire here remains to be seen. But there is plenty of smoke.

Yet Cleaver calls the House vote holding Holder in contempt “silly”? The chairman of the Black Caucus should have the opposite reaction if only for concern for his own community. Illegal drugs smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico cause havoc among black youth. According to the Center for American Progress, there have been more than 25.4 million drug convictions in the U.S. since 1980, and one-third of them were black.

To grasp what’s really motivating Cleaver, I apply what I call the “A Time to Kill” test.

In the 1996 film “A Time to Kill,” a black man in a Mississippi town hires a white lawyer to defend him after he kills two white racists who raped and mutilated his daughter. When the lawyer makes his closing argument to the jury, he asks them to close their eyes. He describes the atrocities that were done to the girl and concludes by saying “now imagine she’s white.” His black defendant is acquitted.

So close your eyes. Consider the details about Fast and Furious and then picture that the attorney general is not Eric Holder but John Ashcroft (first attorney general of President G.W. Bush) and that the murdered border agent, Brian Terry, is black.

Would Emanuel Cleaver now call this contempt vote “silly”? Would the Black Caucus have walked out?

For the Black Caucus this is about racial politics.

Fortunately for us and for Darrell Issa (who happens to represent my home district in California) this is about shedding light on what might be broken in ATF operations.

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