All too often, the Congressional Black Caucus gets a bad rap. What do they do, many ask. What have they recently accomplished? Are they leaning on their revolutionary origins, their founding in 1971, the once widely publicized People’s Budget? Have they become go-along to get-along politicians as usual?
These are reasonable questions that I often raise myself, often so frustrated by Congressional inaction that I don’t see the big picture, the lovely picture of more than fifty Black members of Congress, when we once had only one at a time, and with the many ways that their collective action makes a difference. All too often, it is not what they do but what they prevent by working to stop the foolish impulses of some of the Republicans who would oppose our Black existence.
I was reminded of the efficacy of the Congressional Black Caucus when I recently interviewed Dr. Sherice Jenaye Nelson, a Howard University-educated political scientist whose recent book, The Congressional Black Caucus: Fifty Years of Fighting for Equality (Archway Publishing, 2020), recounts the history of Black political participation at the Congressional level.
This sister scholar has done meticulous work describing the many ways the Congressional Black Caucus has been enormously impactful. In our radio conversation, though, she also talked about the limitations that CBC members face because of their ideological diversity and their need to be reelected to make change.
My idols are the activists like Congresswomen Maxine Waters (CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), Barbara Lee (CA), and Karen Bass (CA). Newcomers like Cori Bush (MO) and Lucy McBath (GA) have also earned my admiration for their strong positions and willingness to go against the grain. At the same time, some will go nameless who don’t much step up or speak up. Dr. Nelson reminded me that some of them don’t have the freedom to speak, partly because they represent majority- white districts or aren’t that radical, being elected because they are “moderates.”
Still, they can sometimes be counted to vote with their African American colleagues, and those are the votes that count. Writing them off can be counterproductive when we need to get things done. Don’t get me wrong – we should call them on their racial ambivalence when we need to. At the same time, during this Black History Month, I’m willing to dial back some of the criticism and look at the very many excellent things the Congressional Black Caucus has done.
Dr. Sherise Jenaye Nelson’s book is one worth reading. It speaks to the foreign policy the CBC has done historically, especially around Africa issues (Congressman Ron Dellyms’ championship to the Free South Africa movement is notable) and Caribbean issues, especially around Haiti. Domestically, Congressman James Clyburn’s (SC) HBCU advocacy is laudable, as is Congresswoman Alma Adma’s (NC) work forming the bicameral, bipartisan HBCU Caucus. There’s more, and you’ll have to read the book to get the whole story.
I’m lifting these Black folk during this Black History Month because they deserve it. At the same time, I can’t completely take my critic hat off. It is shameful that so many did not support HR 40 when Congressman John Conyers (MI) lived. It is commendable that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has taken the baton from him and championed the reparations cause, and with the help of organizations like N’COBRA (the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) and NAARC (the National African American Reparations Commission, an organization sponsored by the Institute of the Black World), garnered 215 co-sponsors for the legislation. Why aren’t more Black members of Congress more enthusiastic about economic justice and reparations? Political considerations notwithstanding, this is a just cause.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has annually sponsored a Phoenix Awards Dinner at its annual legislative forum. The awards reference the closing speech of Congressman George White, who was the African American post-Reconstruction member of Congress (1897-1901). He highlighted Black progress since enslavement and said that, like the phoenix, we would rise.
“We have 140,000 farms and homes, valued in the neighborhood of $750,000,000, and personal property valued about $170,000,000. We have raised about $11,000,000 for educational purposes…We are operating successfully several banks, commercial enterprises among our people in the Southland, including one silk mill and one cotton factory. We have 32,000 teachers in the schools of the country; we have built, with the aid of our friends, about 20,000 churches, and support seven colleges”.
Congressman White spoke of progress. There is still much room for advancement. The Congressional Black Caucus members are agents of progress. Criticize them, if you will, but embrace them. They are the conscience of Congress. They are our champions.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. Juliannemalveaux.com.