The Congressional Black Caucus: Necessary but Not Sufficient – The American Prospect

14September 2020

Even after winning their primaries, the new generation of Black congressional insurgents has continued to pound the streets. In Missouri, one week after she’d upset longtime metro St. Louis congressman William Lacy Clay, son of a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cori Bush led a mid-August demonstration to the entrance of the Cole County Jail in Jefferson City. There, the Black Lives Matter activist challenged police to support criminal justice reforms.

In 1949, Clay’s father, William Lacy Clay Sr., survived a brush with local police who tried to frame him for a crime that he didn’t commit. Elected to Congress after the 1968 riots, he championed jobs and housing for African Americans and predicted, “This country is on the verge of a revolution and it is not going to be a revolution of Blacks, but of dissatisfied American people, Black and white.” Two years ago, the younger Clay, who in 2000 had succeeded his father in representing the district, trounced Bush by 20 points. This year, Bush supporters made sure that voters knew that Clay, a Wall Street apologist, had argued for Republican and Wall Street plans that would disadvantage African Americans. When the Clay campaign belatedly recognized the threat, it went nuclear with mailers that darkened Bush’s skin tone, in an appeal to the old-school Black colorism that still persists, particularly among older voters.

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In New York, one month after he unseated 16-term member Eliot Engel in the primary, Jamaal Bowman held a “people’s hearing” on COVID-19 and conditions for the inmates and workers in jails and prisons. Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was a white friend of the CBC who’d supported the group on bills from policing to reparations. CBC powerhouses Gregory Meeks (Engel’s fellow New Yorker), South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn (third-ranking Democrat in the party’s House caucus), and California’s Maxine Waters (chair of the House Financial Services Committee) gave their fellow senior member effusive support.

Mondaire Jones, who won a primary for an open seat just north of New York City, plans to team up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to work on the Green New Deal and environmental issues in public housing. And New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who dispatched an aging Bronx power broker in another open-seat primary, is calling for an investigation into possible New York Police Department work stoppages amid rising crime.

Barring unforeseen developments, these four candidates will carry their overwhelmingly Democratic districts in November’s general election and head to Congress next year. “The Squad is big, y’all,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the Massachusetts member of the group, declared at the Netroots Nation convention after the spate of progressive primary victories. Indeed, this second squad of Black progressives is poised to join Pressley and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in the Congressional Black Caucus, where they’ll be a vocal minority.

As legislative blocs go, the CBC is a formidable one, and its power is rooted in numbers. The CBC has 54 members, so it’s a sizable force in the House, where it constitutes nearly a quarter of the 232-member Democratic Party caucus. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi understood its influence as she furiously wheeled and dealed to preserve her speakership in 2018. The insurgent challenge to Pelosi collapsed after the popular California Rep. Karen Bass, a favorite of the liberal Democratic wing who’d hoped that she might serve as their standard-bearer, declined to take on Pelosi. Today, the CBC’s clout extends beyond the House into Joe Biden’s campaign for president. Bass, the outgoing CBC chair, was a vice-presidential contender. Jim Clyburn single-handedly resuscitated Biden’s bid on the eve of the South Carolina primary, and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana is a Biden campaign co-chair.

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The Squad and the new primary victors can claim to be renewing the politics of some of the CBC’s founders like John Conyers, Ron Dellums, and Augustus Hawkins. But their presence will likely exacerbate divisions within the Caucus. Some of the Caucus’s most prominent members—Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks among them—are recipients of donations from major corporations and Wall Street, with voting records that are notably friendly to those interests. Some members, like Alabama’s Terri Sewell, hail from more conservative terrains in the Deep South; some are Blue Dogs, like Reps. David Scott and Sanford Bishop. Once elected, many had lifetime sinecures, like John Lewis and John Conyers, who in his last term was the most senior member of the House. Though some of them may have begun their careers as activists and radicals, many now chair committees and subcommittees. They have a stake in the seniority system, and rather than slay that beast, they back fellow longtimers like Engel over unknowns like Bowman.

Between the old guard and the younger insurgents stands Karen Bass. Her long career as a community activist makes her closer in life experience to the insurgents, but she also has a Pelosi-like talent to build majorities and talk to all sides, a talent that helped elevate her to Speaker of the California Assembly. As a young woman, she traveled to Cuba with the Venceramos Brigade, and later founded Community Coalition, the South Central Los Angeles group that worked to fight poverty, crime, police harassment, and mass incarceration.

For several decades, corporate dollars have flowed heavily through the CBC ecosystem.

Bass combines a backstory similar to Conyers’s and Dellums’s, the CBC’s radical founders, with that of an accomplished legislator. As California Assembly Speaker, she worked closely with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to navigate California through the Great Recession without totally dismantling its social programs. This summer, Bass proved able to steer a police reform bill through the House—the Senate, of course, hasn’t taken it up—winning the votes not only of every House Democrat, but of three Republicans.

To find votes on the police reform bill and similar legislation, Bass and her CBC colleagues get cast in the complex role of racial explainer, corralling white Democratic fence-sitters who don’t understand how police often function in Black communities. They have to make the case for why a bill that bans chokeholds, limits military equipment transfers to local police forces, and facilitates the prosecution of police officers for abuse is good not just for African Americans but for their white constituents, too. (Arguing that legislation principally benefits Black Americans can be a nonstarter.) “They just didn’t understand,” Bass says. So she shared her stories of being harassed by police for her political activities and her fears about surviving those encounters.

The massive protests since George Floyd’s murder changed the political terrain, but like their white colleagues, CBC members are cautious on issues like ending the militarization of the police. In 2014, just seven members of the CBC voted to end the transfer of heavy military equipment like grenade launchers to police departments. In this year’s policing bill, the CBC supported oversights that required reports, certifications, and local approvals for the Defense Department’s 1033 program—but not terminating the program altogether, as the ACLU and other groups have demanded.

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THE HOUSE PASSAGE of the police reform bill was no more than a small victory, coming in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, historic jobs losses, economic dislocation, and more police killings—all of which have taken a fearsome toll across Black America. The summer of frustration, protests, and violence in the streets tells a story quite different from legislative success. “When you look in terms of influence, the CBC would seem to be at an apex of its power,” says Katherine Tate, a Brown University political science professor who has studied the Black Caucus. “But you have African Americans also saying, what has all this power in Washington gotten us?”

That skepticism is one of the factors that powered the progressives to victory in this year’s primaries—and it’s making some longtime Democrats, including longtime CBC members, nervous about any Tea Party–like developments on the left.

The progressives’ attacks on corporate power—attacks that echo those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—set them apart from a number of the CBC’s more prominent members. Historically, Black candidates have faced more difficulties raising money, even though they typically spend less on their campaigns than white candidates. Coming from low- and moderate-income Black districts, they know campaign contributions are an inconceivable luxury for the majority of their constituents. Many had little choice but to turn to small-business donors—and for some, corporate donors, too. And as Black candidates came to represent districts that also stretched to include more well-to-do suburbs, it became easier to identify and court wealthier individuals and tap into other networks.

For several decades, then, corporate dollars have flowed heavily through the CBC ecosystem and into two of its offshoots, CBCPAC and the CBC Foundation. The foundation provides scholarships, fellowships, internships, and study-abroad programs for students, and is viewed as a pipeline for staff positions on Capitol Hill. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, a former CBCF intern, is the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress. The foundation has sent election observers to Kenya, publishes research and reports, and conducts public-awareness campaigns. It also spends heavily on events like its annual legislative conference, billed as an empowerment and networking event that provides shoulder-rubbing opportunities for the members, Black policymakers, and business leaders.

More than half of the foundation’s board of directors are representatives from corporations, among them Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Ford, and Toyota North America. A 2017 annual report noted that State Farm, the insurance company that is the foundation’s largest donor, has contributed roughly $8 million to the foundation programs in its 17-year partnership with the CBC. Sometimes, the foundation spends so much on fundraising that not much remains for its other activities. A 2018 CBCF tax return shows that the bulk of the $4 million it brought in through fundraising activities went right out the door to pay for those events, leaving less than $1 million for programs.

The heavy corporate presence means it’s difficult for the foundation’s research arm to produce the kind of unbiased information that lawmakers need to write legislation. Nor does the foundation focus on the deep political institution-building or policy advancement initiatives that founders like D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy would launch. Upset that John McMillan, a South Carolina segregationist, consistently blocked D.C. self-determination bills in the House, Fauntroy and others worked on recruiting an opponent who could run for his South Carolina seat. McMillan lost in 1972; home rule finally came up for a vote, and D.C. gained home rule the following year.

“I don’t see any members with that level of political sophistication and that personal investment in the institutions rising within the CBC today,” says George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history who specializes in Black politics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

CBCPAC members appear to be more interested in using the Caucus’s campaign finance arm as the institution-building tool of choice, rather than for recruiting candidates to run against members (like McMillan) who oppose CBC priorities. Representatives from T-Mobile, General Motors, Boston Scientific, and Microsoft sit on the CBCPAC’s 27-member board, along with Bass, Jeffries, Meeks, Underwood, and other Caucus members. The CBCPAC threw its support behind Joe Biden in April; most CBC members supported Biden early on.

An all-star lineup of corporations contributes heavily to Meeks and Jeffries, whose voting records reflect the source of their funding. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Meeks’s three top corporate donors for the 2019-2020 cycle are the global investors KKR & Co., the Blackstone Group, and New York Life Insurance. Rounding out his top 20 contributors are companies including FedEx, Citigroup, KPMG, the American Bankers Association, and the Mortgage Bankers Association. Meeks, who represents the borough of Queens in Congress, told City & State New York magazine, “Clearly, I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist.” He opposes taxing financial transactions and did not approve of the fight that ousted Amazon from Long Island City, Queens.

In 2015, Meeks supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership even though most Democrats opposed the pact; he was the only Democrat to accompany Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans on a TPP promotion swing through Asia. New York state and local politicians attacked his stance and argued that more jobs would head overseas from Queens if the TPP were ratified.

Jeffries’s fourth-largest donor, Microsoft, and his 11th, T-Mobile, are both on the CBCPAC board; a Microsoft representative also sits on the foundation board. Jeffries, who also benefits from hedge fund and financial/insurance/real estate companies, has been criticized for his support for hedge fund–backed groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a charter school astroturf organization.

In 2014, Meeks and Reps. Gwen Moore, David Scott, Terri Sewell, and William Lacy Clay backed efforts to protect derivatives, the financial instruments that helped produce the Great Recession. The Philadelphia Tribune, an African American newspaper, noted that the support for derivatives “angered other members, who while publicly chastising their colleagues, stopped short of naming the obvious reason for the seeming abandonment of their core constituents. But you already know the reason, and you probably also understand why caucus leadership hasn’t said the word out loud. Money.”

At a time of rising progressive anger, corporate support may no longer be the boon that some CBC members have long counted on. William Lacy Clay is gone. Georgia’s David Scott prevailed over three challengers, his first serious ones in years. Meeks beat back two challengers. But as the Clay case shows, a challenger’s second run may have a different outcome.

Generational and political differences have been with the CBC since its formation.

For those members who don’t want to take corporate dollars, becoming internet famous has its benefits. Mondaire Jones raised $1.7 million for his race, largely through the digital progressive infrastructure; one of his opponents, the son of a billionaire, spent $5.4 million. Jones understands the nervousness some members may have at this change in funding campaigns. “A lot of more senior members of the CBC take umbrage at the sort of pressure not to take corporate PAC money,” he says. “That’s going to continue to be a thing on which people disagree.”

Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decree that vendors and consultants working with and for candidates who challenged incumbents would no longer be able to do business with the organization drew praise from well-financed CBC moderates like Rep. Joyce Beatty, who faced, and trounced, a progressive Democratic primary challenger in her Columbus, Ohio, district.

The battle between incumbents facing progressive challengers who baffle them with grassroots, small-dollar fundraising strategies has turned the ideological cold war over campaign financing hot. Grassroots fundraising gives an edge to social-media-savvy progressives who can cultivate thousands of followers willing to make small-dollar donations to fuel campaigns. Now an incumbent, Ayanna Pressley raised nearly 50 percent of her $1.6 million war chest for the 2019-2020 cycle through contributions of $200 or less. Jamaal Bowman got off to a slow start, but once his campaign gained national attention, small donors contributed more than half of his $2.3 million bounty.

“As we fight for a culture shift in this country, we must also fight for a power shift,” Pressley told the Netroots Nation convention. A few more victories by Black candidates eschewing corporate donations might dent traditional CBC corporate fundraising strategies and tilt power in unexpected ways.

MONEY MAY BE a hot-button ideological issue at the CBC, but the clash of generations, along with temperaments and styles, compounds the Caucus’s differences. Roughly half of the CBC members range in age from 65 to 84. Age can be deceptive, though: Lawmakers from predominantly Black communities who were politically active in the 1960s have been more liberal than many of their younger colleagues. Older representatives like John Lewis began to be supplanted by more moderate Black politicians (like Barack Obama) with statewide or more diverse local constituencies in the 1990s and 2000s.

The late civil rights leader was an outspoken Black Lives Matter supporter who continued to counsel and mentor young civil rights activists and members of Congress throughout his career, right up until his final illness. Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland-area community leader who once worked with the Black Panthers, teamed up with progressives Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois to repeal, so far unsuccessfully, the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal abortion funding. Lee and Jamaal Bowman have discussed the challenges of activist-legislators.

Karen Bass has endeavored to bridge the generational divide with informal mentoring arrangements to pair new members with veteran lawmakers. (It would be up to a new chair to continue the arrangement, since it doesn’t exist in the bylaws, she says.) If this buddy system won’t temper impatience with seniority, Bass has wait-your-turn advice: “In your second term, all of a sudden seniority is not so bad,” she says. Seniority definitely has elevated CBC members to positions of power. By ousting Engel, ironically, Bowman, whom the CBC refused to support in his New York Democratic challenge, has now cleared the path for Meeks to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bass lands on “We are like a family” to describe the culture of the Black Caucus, but also acknowledges that “we have differences. But the people in the Black Caucus know each other, are close to each other, and get along with each other well,” Bass insists. “Family” does signal that a united front and mutual support system still exists deep in the bowels of an institution that perpetuates white supremacy and patriarchy. “Family” is also shorthand for not putting family business out on the street, because CBC members can be close to each other—until they can’t be.

With Nancy Pelosi vowing to step down after 2022, jockeying in the next speakership battle has already begun. It will feature at least three possible CBC contenders and, it’s safe to say, a fair amount of ferocious infighting. Bass’s ascent, including her presence on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential short list, puts her on a collision course with Jeffries, the Democratic Caucus chair and a centrist who was once widely believed to have the inside track. Barbara Lee, Dellums’s successor in his Berkeley-Oakland district, is a wild card. Jeffries bested Lee once before, elbowing her out of the number five leadership slot and earning the ire of Democratic women and progressives who backed Lee in the contest. Her vote against adding marijuana legalization to the 2020 Democratic Party platform—she heads the Cannabis Caucus and has been a longtime advocate for legal pot—could be an indication of concessions she needs to display before trying for the top spot.

Generational and political differences have been with the CBC since its formation. Among the founders, Charles Diggs was the quiet centrist; and John Conyers and Dellums were socialists (Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America). Augustus Hawkins first won election to the California State Assembly in 1934 as a supporter of socialist Upton Sinclair, running as a Democrat for governor.

Dellums was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Conyers introduced reparations proposals beginning in 1989 until his retirement in 2017. Following in the footsteps of Augustus Hawkins, Conyers also introduced a full-employment bill in session after session. “Conyers was out there,” says Paul Delaney, the first African American reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau.

Notwithstanding its divisions, the Conscience of the Congress, as the CBC has long been known, has nudged Democrats leftward and forced the institution to bend to ideas that were once anathema, including a trade embargo against the South African apartheid regime, greater social spending, and LGBTQ rights. One reason for its progressive reputation is its alternative budget proposal, a vision of what federal spending that benefited African Americans and middle- and low-income Americans generally would look like, which it updates and presents in each congressional session. In 2018, that budget included $3.9 trillion in new revenues, partly by repealing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; investments in infrastructure and in historically underserved communities; universal health care through an ACA public option; and significant outlays for K-12 education and historically Black colleges and universities.

The CBC’s founders never anticipated that there would ever be enough Black lawmakers to constitute a political force. The Caucus started out as a bid for self-preservation and mutual support in a sea of white and often unwelcoming faces. Shirley Chisholm of New York was one of its founders, along with 12 men: Reps. William Lacy Clay Sr. of Missouri; George Collins and Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois; John Conyers and Charles Diggs of Michigan; Ron Dellums and Augustus Hawkins of California; Parren Mitchell of Maryland; Robert N.C. Nix Sr. of Pennsylvania; Charles Rangel of New York; Louis Stokes of Ohio; and Walter Fauntroy, the District of Columbia delegate.

Chisholm had to deal with the “double whammy” of sexism and racism as the first Black woman in Congress and the only woman in her freshman class in 1969. The CBC men didn’t like her. “She didn’t take any guff from anybody,” says Delaney. The men planned to select one of their own to run for president in 1972, a move they thought would give them more clout in Congress. But Chisholm announced her run before they even had a chance to meet.

Though the Caucus considers itself one of the most progressive forces in Congress, it wasn’t progressive enough for Ron Dellums and Maxine Waters, who joined with Bernie Sanders and others in 1991 to establish the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Yet Waters’s liberal reputation has not immunized her from progressive dissent on the Financial Services Committee. Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib secured plum seats on the Financial Services Committee but have made her life difficult over votes on her priorities like the Export-Import Bank.

There is cross-pollination between the Black and Progressive Caucuses: Nearly two dozen African Americans are members of the CPC. Presidential politics is a different story: In the Democratic primaries, the majority of the Black CPC members supported Biden. Omar was the only Bernie Sanders supporter. Ayanna Pressley came out for her Bay State colleague, Elizabeth Warren. “The insurgent character of the early CBC of the ’70s or the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party simply does not exist within the CBC,” says Musgrove, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor.

New CBC members will have to grapple with whether to maintain party solidarity, or to resist conceding on deeply held principles.

Only four of the eight Black Republican members of Congress elected since 1971 have joined the CBC, and the two Black Republican senators—Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts liberal, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina conservative—both declined the invitation. When districts with substantial non-Black populations began electing moderate Black Democrats, those members hesitated to get out in front of so-called Black issues like reparations. A majority of the CBC has supported legislation to set up a reparations study commission, but several members declined to sign on to the bill. For many members, “the natural progression,” says Michael Minta of the University of Minnesota, “is to work on issues that are not exclusively racial, such as the battles over the economic system and the macro-micro policies that disproportionately affect Blacks and Latinos.”

Diverse districts are no deterrent to the new progressives. “I can’t think of a single thing that is for Black Americans that isn’t something that people in my district are similarly committed to legislatively,” says Jones, whose district, comprising Westchester and Rockland Counties, is 60 percent white, 22 percent Latino, 10 percent Black, and 6 percent Asian; the median income is slightly more than $100,000. “I don’t think that you can be a moderate and have the best interests of the Black community at heart.” He rejects the idea that progressives have to moderate their views to be influential and move up the ladder in Congress. “Dismantling systemic racism and attaining racial justice requires a radical reimagining of our institutions relating to equity and fairness,” he says.

TODAY, MANY BLACK Americans have grown skeptical of their Black representatives in Congress, whom they view as having done little to revitalize communities with poor schools and anemic job opportunities. African Americans continue to wrestle with job discrimination, heavy-handed police tactics, and health care disparities regardless of ZIP code.

Judy Richardson, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that fought for civil rights in the South in the 1960s, reflects on how Black politicians once relied on the votes of middle- and upper-middle-class Blacks. As they moved to the suburbs, politicians fell out of step with lower-income Blacks, who voted in fewer numbers and had even less influence in local politics. She views the new progressives as more likely to live in underrepresented communities and more willing (once the pandemic has passed) to knock on doors and engage residents. “Not enough Black politicians see themselves as accountable to regular working people,” she says.

The conflicts now in play in the CBC may unfold over several more sessions before a new direction takes hold—if, indeed, it does. Interest in holding leadership positions and moving up the ranks has a way of moderating some members’ politics, so long as moderation dominates the congressional Democratic Party. For now, there are enough members of the CBC old guard to see that those prerogatives are respected. New CBC members will have to grapple with whether to vote to maintain party solidarity and mollify the Speaker, or to resist conceding on deeply held principles.

The new progressives will surely make themselves heard. “I don’t think they are going to shut the hell up,” says Richardson. “Because they represent a large segment of communities that have not been represented before, even by Black elected officials. These folks will continue to get elected because they understand the ground game now.”

What powered both the Squad and this year’s progressive insurgents to victory is a new militancy, particularly among the young, in communities of color and the broader Democratic electorate. Some younger civil rights leaders say that the CBC has failed to recognize this epochal shift. Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, a statewide voting rights group, wants to see “decisive leadership” and “clear articulation of a federal Black agenda.” Ufot has a different slate of agenda items: restitution from the mortgage crisis that decimated Black family wealth; a new voting rights act; and action on environmental justice issues in vulnerable communities. “The CBC,” Ufot says, should “lead from the front.” Richardson, who works with young people like Ufot, is encouraged to see a new generation of activists out in neighborhoods working with residents who understand that members of Congress should put communities first, not monied interests.

African Americans should not “mistake presence for power,” said Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson in this year’s Netroots Nation closing session. “Sometimes we think that we have won more than we have, that we are further along than we actually are, working to diversify racist structures rather than tearing them down,” he said. “Sometimes we think that if we just get inside of the system, we can make it align to fit what we need,” adding, “Corporations continue to put their hands on the scale.”

And not just corporations. In 2020, police forces in every corner of the country have sent dissatisfied Blacks and whites into the streets in a national moment of reckoning that William Lacy Clay Sr. foretold decades ago. The Congressional Black Caucus has yet to meet that moment. Right now, for the most part, they are playing catch-up with the activists and ordinary people who are out in front and in the streets.

Older Black voters may remember when their member of Congress came to open the senior center. But young people have an impossible time reconciling their brilliant Black members of Congress with the food deserts, the failing schools, and the police maimings and killings that they live with, seemingly every day.

“When you are talking about young folks who are not in the Links, not in the Deltas, not a member of Alpha Phi Alpha,” says Musgrove, referring to the Black social and Greek-letter societies, “they don’t see those little pocketbook things that members are bringing home. They see the cops.”


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