‘We cannot flunk this moment’: Black Caucus looks to deliverJune 25, 2020
This may be the most pivotal moment for the Congressional Black Caucus in its nearly 50 years of existence.
The group has never been more influential in Washington, now playing an outsize role among House Democrats and the broader party. Several CBC members are being vetted as possible vice presidential picks, and others are being talked about as future speakers. CBC members now chair four major House committees, with even more possible next year. And no major bill goes through the House without Democrats asking, “What does the CBC say?”
Yet it’s also a tumultuous time to be Black in America, including for the CBC and the veteran lawmakers who make up its ranks. Black and minority communities have suffered inordinately from the coronavirus pandemic. The deaths of African Americans while in police custody continue to roil the nation and have turned Black Lives Matter into a global movement. And Congress — once again — appears to be paralyzed over how to confront police brutality and systemic racism.
“It’s true,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said of the CBC’s mounting influence in the current political landscape. “But only because — for the first time — people are able to visualize what the CBC has been trying to talk about for a long time.”
“All of a sudden, these [videos] are out there. And people are beginning to see what we’ve been seeing for a long, long time,” Clyburn added.
Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in Congress, was pivotal in helping secure the Democratic presidential nomination for Joe Biden with a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary. Black voters remain the bedrock of Biden’s base heading into the November election.
The videotaped killing of George Floyd and the huge outpouring of support for BLM has also brought to the forefront a much more aggressive group of progressive activists who are not satisfied with incrementalism.
These activists are willing to tear down political shibboleths as much as they’re willing to tear down statues of once-venerated Americans. And that puts the CBC, not to mention the broader Democratic Party, in a political bind: They need to deliver results now.
Rep. Karen Bass, who is in her second year as chair of the CBC, spent years as a civil rights activist in Los Angeles — where she was sometimes harassed by the city’s police officers — before launching her political career in California. The five-term Democrat said she understands the pressure from protesters in the streets calling for more drastic action than what’s in the policing bill being considered on the House floor Thursday.
“It is the role of an activist to push us as far as they can push us. It is our role to legislate, and that is a different role,” Bass said in an interview. “It takes an outside and an inside strategy to bring about change. We work on the inside, we know what is realistic. We are very committed to making a difference, and that is different than making a point. You can either make a point, or you can make a difference.”
Bass — who saw her home city torn apart by riots after the Rodney King beating nearly 30 years ago — said she and her colleagues in the CBC must craft a response that can actually pass, or risk squandering the chance entirely.
“Personally, I always want to do more. But again, I want to be successful with the legislation,” Bass said.
Bass and other members of the CBC said they recognize the immensity of this moment and the spotlight their caucus has after years of feeling like leaders in both parties didn’t prioritize issues facing Black Americans. That includes some of the same policing measures that the House is preparing to pass, including a ban on chokeholds and language to make it easier to sue police officers for misconduct.
“We have had, for years, individual members of the Black Caucus who have submitted legislation, and it was kind of just, ‘Yeah, yeah, we hear you.’ People sign on, but it doesn’t go anywhere,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.).
“Now, to actually see members of Congress look to us for leadership, look to us for direction, for advice, and counting on us to help get this right — there’s a tremendous amount of, I would say, pressure, I say that personally, that we make a difference and we get this right,” Lawrence said.
For some, the challenge is bigger than any in the CBC’s history.
“Make no mistake, this is a CBC moment. This is what those founders wanted to have in place at a time of crisis,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former chair of the group.
“We have been placed on center stage of this American racial and justice moment. … Things are in place and we cannot flunk this moment,” he added, noting the scores of young activists who continue to demonstrate across the country as they look to the CBC for guidance and change.
The CBC had already been “all hands on deck” this spring, as members described it, as the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately hit Black communities. Its members were deeply involved in the House’s multitrillion dollar pandemic relief bills, pushing hard to ensure money went to the neediest families and to minority-owned businesses that already struggled with access to capital.
Floyd’s death in late May — and the national reckoning on race that has followed — put the CBC even more squarely in focus. Clyburn, Bass and other senior Black Democrats immediately took the lead on the legislative response, with white lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, intentionally staying on the sidelines.
“In this moment, the CBC is known not only as the ‘conscience of the Congress,’ but really, the place where action is happening. It’s not just a moral compass question. It is, ‘How do we act? How do we respond?’” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said in an interview.
Still, the House bill faces slim odds of being passed in the Senate, which deadlocked over a narrower GOP proposal Wednesday. Real policing reform, Democrats say, may not come until after November if they can take back the White House and Senate — a reality that may further frustrate activists.
Meanwhile, the CBC has been undergoing its own changes, as its members and those of the House Democratic Caucus at large skew younger and more progressive.
Some of the most prominent members of the organization — John Conyers, Elijah Cummings and Charles Rangel — have retired or died. The 80-year-old Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, has been battling pancreatic cancer.
Yet after the 2018 elections, the CBC’s ranks grew by nine, including trailblazing members from suburban Connecticut and upstate New York representing majority-white districts.
The CBC’s ranks are poised to grow even further in 2020, particularly as the scourge of anger over systemic racism begins to seep into this year’s elections. Several Black candidates saw an unexpected surge in Tuesday’s primaries with several winning in landslides. Two candidates in New York are likely to become the first openly gay Black members of Congress.
Among the successful Black candidates on Tuesday was Jamaal Bowman, a liberal challenger who appears to have knocked down 31-year incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). This came despite Engel’s backing from the CBC.
It wasn’t unusual for the CBC to back Engel, a longtime white ally, over a Black candidate in his primary. Commitment to seniority has long been a bedrock CBC principle — a necessary system, they argued, to ensure that Black lawmakers are able to assume their rightful leadership roles within the caucus, instead of being passed over for less senior white members, as in decades past.
But that seniority system has been repeatedly questioned in recent years, with members no longer content to wait decades to become committee chairs or party leaders. And those younger members have questioned the value of a system that has kept some older Democrats in leadership positions long after they stop being effective just to maintain seniority.
Most recently the issue has popped up on the campaign trail, with the CBC facing criticism for endorsing white incumbents over Black primary challengers. The CBC took heat for backing white Rep. Mike Capuano over Black challenger Ayanna Pressley in 2018, and once again in this cycle for supporting Engel over Bowman.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the CBC’s campaign arm, staunchly defended the decision to support Engel and other white incumbents over Black challengers. Engel, Meeks said, has fought for years against police brutality in his Bronx district. And just because it is now a majority-minority district, that shouldn’t automatically disqualify a white candidate, Meeks added.
“He went to jail, he fought … he was out there supporting those issues in those times. So that means something, you don’t throw that away,” Meeks said. “You judge a person based upon the merit of their service. So if you earn it, that’s who we support.”
Other CBC members now say its endorsement policy should be reevaluated, even as they acknowledge the internal struggle over shunning a long-time Democrat — who may have been a strong advocate for the Black community — in support of a Black challenger.
“We’re hard-pressed to say that we don’t want someone because of the color of their skin to continue to serve. Having gone through so many times we’ve been excluded. It is hard,” Lawrence added.
But Lawrence said she would encourage the CBC to withhold endorsements in certain races in the future, for instance, if there is a “qualified African American challenger” running against an incumbent.
“Black candidates are running and fighting and qualified to run for office,” said Lawrence, who fought in a tough primary herself before coming to Congress. “We are going to have to look at that.”