What the Congressional Black Caucus Lost When It Won Power

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tags: African American history, political history, Congressional Black Caucus

It was fall 1986, and the Congressional Black Caucus was riding high. The then-15-year-old organization and self-styled “conscience of Congress” had spent its early years at the margins of influence, antagonizing leaders of both major parties and feeling very much like the outsider clamoring to be heard.

President Nixon famously refused to meet with the caucus when it first formed in 1971. Before the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the caucus’s members issued a list of demands, titled “The Black Bill of Rights” — influenced by the Black Power and Pan-Africanist politics that were in vogue at the time — and threatened to withhold their support from the party nominee if the Democrats didn’t adopt it. Among the demands were “guaranteed health delivery systems” styled after neighborhood health clinics, and the withdrawal of U.S. aid from Portugal, which was at war with Black freedom fighters in its colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

By 1986, the CBC was a major player on Capitol Hill. When the organization held its annual conference that October, eight of the 22 standing committees in the House of Representatives were headed by its members, and an estimated 15,000 people attended the event, according to the New York Times. The mood was celebratory. The caucus had just led a successful effort to override President Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa.

“We made a statement to [South African president] P.W. Botha and to the world,” said Representative Mickey Leland at the time. “But we realize that this sanctions bill is not a cure-all for the problems faced by Black South Africans.”

Nor was the CBC a sustainable remedy to what ailed Black Americans. With institutional acceptance came stasis. “[Seniority], repeated election cycles, and [the lack of] a robust movement as a source of accountability and direction” led members to govern more “like typical politicians,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies at Princeton.

As the Reagan era neared its close, the group that had long presented itself as an agitator for the cause of everyday Black people around the world was starting to resemble something more recognizable: a professional organization dedicated to protecting Democratic incumbents, including white ones against Black challengers, and sustaining career advancement for its own members.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the CBC is one of the pillars of the Democratic Establishment, a fundraising juggernaut with deep ties to corporate entities like Walmart and Altria (formerly Philip Morris, the biggest tobacco company in America) and a regular champion of party leaders, rather than a thorn in their side. Its individual members are by no means ideologically monolithic, though none of them are Republicans. Several of the newer ones — Ayanna Pressley, Jamal Bowman, Cori Bush — primaried CBC-backed incumbents. And contrary to popular narratives, there are enough left-leaning older members and right-leaning younger ones that internal rifts don’t map neatly onto generational or partisan divides.

But in the absence of such uniformity, the trends that have moved the CBC from the margins of influence to its center help explain its willingness to ignore its own stated principles, especially when it comes to elections.

Read entire article at New York Magazine

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