Monday, January 29, 2007

Congressional Black Caucus Should Lead By Example

In 1971, two years after Representatives Shirley Chisholm, Louis Stokes and William Clay recognized the need for formally organizing the increasing number of black lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Black Caucus was officially begun. In addition to those three representatives, Charles Rangel, John Conyers and Ron Dellums were part of the original twelve founding members of the CBC.

Today, there are over forty black members of the CBC in the 110th Congress, and as was reported recently, the CBC will remain exclusively black, at least for the foreseeable future. Freshman Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who is white and who represents a majority black district, will not become the CBC’s first white member. According to Cohen’s spokeswoman, Marilyn Dillihay, “Representative Cohen never asked to join and was never denied access to the Black Caucus.” Whether that is true or not, it hasn’t stopped many observers, including Republican presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo, from making the issue front page news.

"It is utterly hypocritical for Congress to extol the virtues of a colorblind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race," Tancredo said this past week. "If we are serious about achieving the goal of a colorblind society, Congress should lead by example and end these divisive, race-based caucuses.”

While some will rightly say that Tancredo’s overly public stance is aimed at increasing exposure for a long shot presidential candidate who has made a name for himself through his opposition to illegal immigration, he raises a legitimate question. Should the Black Caucus deny membership to a member of Congress who wants to join, based on race?

There is nothing in the CBC’s bylaws that officially excludes membership based on race, however some members in the CBC today, and in years past, have admitted to an unwritten rule that only black lawmakers are encouraged to join. Before Steve Cohen, the last white House member that openly attempted to join the CBC was Pete Clark of California in 1975, who also was denied membership. Further, three black Republican members of Congress, Senator Edward Brooke, and Representatives Gary Franks and J.C. Watts, did not join the CBC because of its Democratic Party-leaning ideology.

In the previous 109th Congress, the CBC stated its formal Agenda as follows:

“Since the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus, the core mission of the CBC has been to close (and, ultimately, to eliminate) disparities that exist between African Americans and White Americans in every aspect of life. These continuing and troubling disparities make it more difficult, and often make it impossible, for African Americans to reach their full potential. In pursuing the core mission of the CBC, the CBC has been true to its motto that “the CBC has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”

The CBC concludes its Agenda statement with this:

“The mission and objective of the CBC and our Agenda for the 109th Congress continues to be improving the condition of African American people. However, the CBC has never sought to limit the benefits of its endeavors to African Americans. Indeed, the members of the CBC firmly believe that the priorities outlined in this Agenda will benefit all Americans and will make our country better for all people. We invite all Americans to join us in the quest to remove disparities and barriers that increase the burden or make it impossible for individuals to achieve their full potential. African Americans will be better for it and America will be better for it, too.”

There’s no question that the CBC has been, and remains, an important part of the legislative process that makes sure issues relevant to the needs of blacks are addressed, but one must ask if denying membership, written or unwritten, based on race, lives up to its goals? Why would the inclusion of a white member, whose constituents are predominately black, derail the CBC’s stated objectives? Ironically, Representative Cohen replaced the popular Harold Ford Jr. who lost to Bob Corker in the Tennessee senate race, and Cohen did so by defeating Jake Ford, Harold’s younger brother. Cohen received the critical endorsements of the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County, both of whom are black, along the way.

Responding to the decision of the CBC, Cohen said, “It's their caucus and they do things their way. You don't force your way in." Fortunately, Americans of all races and colors who have fought for civil rights and equality since that struggle began decades ago didn’t walk away from opposition as quickly as Cohen has. If his intent to better serve the people of his district by joining the CBC was genuine, and there’s no evidence to prove that it was otherwise, it is incumbent upon the CBC to let him, and any other lawmaker who wants to join, into its caucus.

The CBC talks about reducing disparities of all types between blacks and whites, but recent health studies have shown that disparities are actually growing in relation to breast and prostate cancer. Serious work needs to be done, here and in many other areas, where disparities exist. Just how ridiculous does it look that in 2007, our elected officials are still fighting the silly battle of who can or can’t join this club or that club because of the color of their skin when more important struggles remain.

When she was running for president in 1972, Shirley Chisholm was asked what she expected to gain from her candidacy; what was it that she wanted for herself and her supporters. “My God, what do we want?” she replied. “What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference.”

Thirty five years later, we recognize we still have some distance to go.


Anonymous Doda said...

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6:14 AM  

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