A crack has opened in the historical Black continuum. 2005 will be recorded as the year that the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) came apart at the seams, the victim of an unprecedented rightwing money and media offensive in Black America, rank treachery by a hardcore handful of Caucus members, and the indiscipline and gross irresponsibility of many more.
The CBC’s collective failure to stand for its constituents and the struggle-birthed legacy of African Americans is also, ironically, a product of historical Black political practice and instinct: the imperative toward unity, which has up to now been the salvation and defining characteristic of the African American polity. Black progressives, seeking unity above all else, have allowed the Congressional Black Caucus (and other Black institutions) to be neutered by the machinations of a small and unrepresentative group of corporate collaborators who are paid specifically to create the illusion of vast new fractures in African American public opinion. These mercenary men and women profit by bearing false witness to their own constituents’ core beliefs on issues of peace, social and racial equality, public power vs. corporate domination, elemental fairness in the marketplace and public sphere, and the struggle to abolish privilege.
Having no stake in Black unity – quite the opposite – these turncoats advertise their deviance from historical Black political thought and practice, signaling their openness to the enemy’s agenda. Disastrously, progressive African American politicians, representing the overwhelmingly progressive Black public, fear to challenge the sell-outs, lest the veneer of Black unity be tarnished. As a result, the malefactors are allowed not only free reign to market their treachery, but are afforded a de facto veto over the CBC’s collective decision-making. The Congressional Black Caucus has been paralyzed, as if bitten by a venomous snake.
CBC Chairman Mel Watt (NC), a progressive lawmaker, admitted as much to Lizz Brown, talk show host on St. Louis radio station WGNU. Watt urged Brown not to read too much into the fact that ten of 41 CBC members voted for the Republican bankruptcy bill, since the Caucus as a whole “did not take a position” on the legislation. But of course, the Caucus could not take a position on bankruptcy, if unanimity or near-unanimity were required. Therefore the CBC, as an institution, sat out a “bright line” vote on an issue of monumental consequence to their core constituency: the predatory lender-besieged Black community.
The CBC also disappeared as a political entity in the fight over repeal of the estate tax, a Republican measure that benefits less than one-half of one percent of Blacks, weakens the nation’s capacity to maintain a social safety net for all the rest of us, and reinforces wealth privilege. Eight Caucus members sided with the rich, and against their constituents – with not a hint of sanction from the CBC, which “did not take a position” on the matter. (See BC, “Black Caucus Losing Cohesion,” April 21, 2005.)
The next week, the GOP’s bill to subsidize the world’s richest industry – Big Oil – garnered 11 votes from the Congressional Black Caucus, more than a quarter of the membership. The energy bill vote marked the third time in two weeks that the CBC had fractured – institutionally collapsed – in the face of the most reactionary forces in American and world society: energy corporations, finance capital, and entrenched, inherited wealth.
A total of 15 CBC members voted for one or more of the three Republican bills. But none violated the consensus of the Caucus, because there is no such thing, anymore.
CBC members that voted with Republicans on bankruptcy, the estate tax, and energy:
Ford Jr. (TN)
Lacy Clay (MO)
The CBC defectors on what were clearly “bright line” progressive issues total 37 percent of total Caucus membership – including four who are also members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (Cleaver, Jackson-Lee, Clay and Rush). We are experiencing a cataclysmic collapse of African American electoral leadership, to which progressive Blacks within and outside the Caucus must respond – or be rendered irrelevant by their own inaction.
Crime and Punishment
The unfolding implosion of the Congressional Black Caucus as a coherent voice for progressive politics is commonly bundled into discussion of the general disarray in the Democratic Party. It is true that the same corporate forces are bribing Black, brown and white Democrats, and that the Democratic Leadership Council acts as a Republican Trojan Horse in the CBC, the Hispanic Caucus and the Democratic Caucus as a whole. It is also true that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been dormant for years, not having even fully updated its website since 2001. However, the comparisons are seriously overdrawn, because the Black and white electorates are very different.
There have always been “Dixiecrat” Democrats, “Reagan” Democrats and “Blue Dog” Democrats among whites. Only a fraction of whites can be reasonably classified as progressive. But the Black electorate is positioned overwhelmingly on the left side of the American political spectrum, with the largest portion resembling “Swedish Social Democrats,” in the assessment of noted Black social demographer Dr. Michael Dawson. The collapse of the Congressional Black Caucus is qualitatively different than the split in the House Democratic Caucus, in that Black Caucus members who cross political “bright lines” are incontrovertibly betraying their constituents’ core expectations.
On issues of social justice, fairness in the marketplace, government intervention in support of the disadvantaged, redress of historical Black grievances, and non-aggression against foreign states, African American public opinion is solid. There are no “red state” Blacks versus “blue state” Blacks; with only very slight variations, African Americans agree on core issues – the Black Political Consensus – and will vote accordingly if they are adequately informed of the choices.
However, since the 2002 election cycle (and, in Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s case, since 2000), the corporate money virus has contaminated Black Democratic leadership. The three “bright line” votes this month show that the disease has metastasized, infecting lawmakers who were not previously part of the core rightwing cancer in the CBC. The prevailing political impunity for crimes against the Black Political Consensus has produced a cascade effect, in which Caucus members respond to corporate lobbyists and newly-monied political minorities in their districts, rather than their core constituents and historical allies.
There is no crisis in the Black body politic, which has registered no sea change in opinion; there is a crisis in Black leadership.
Politicians vs. Voters
A good case in point is Rep. William “Lacy” Clay, son of a former (and progressive) Black congressman from St. Louis, and buddy of the contemptible Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., who is also the son of a former CBC member. Clay stood with Ford when “Prince Harold” unsuccessfully challenged from the right Progressive Caucus executive committee member Nancy Pelosi for leadership of House Democrats, in 2002. Clay is also a member of the Progressive Caucus, but it is difficult to understand why, given his vote for the Republican estate tax bill (see graph) and his decision, this week, to switch his vote on a key abortion bill. “We have to start being flexible" on issues such as abortion and gay rights, Clay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Now, that's going to alienate some of my constituents in the pro-choice community. But look, it's time we start telling these constituency groups, hey, don't be so rigid in your stance and hold us to such a litmus test that it costs us seats."
Clay, whose seat is in absolutely no danger from conservatives, doesn’t want to be held to any discipline at all, and has joined in the unraveling of the CBC.
The Black body politic does recoil from treachery, when sufficiently informed. Houston, Texas Black Democratic state Rep. Ron Wilson, a 27-year statehouse veteran, supported Republican leaders who redrew congressional districts to favor the GOP. Wilson’s Black face in the wrong place stood out like an insult to his constituents, who replaced him in 2004.
Cynthia McKinney, a flamboyant progressive, put the lie to the corporate media and rightwing dictum that, the more prosperous Blacks become, the more conservatively they vote. McKinney reclaimed her congressional seat in a suburban Atlanta district, last year, with 60 percent of the vote. She’d lost it in 2002, due to a massive white turnout – although McKinney won at least 83 percent of the Black vote against a conservative Black opponent. Her district is the third most affluent in Black America.
There’s nothing wrong with Black voters. The fault lies with Black leadership, which is more responsive to money and corporate media than to their constituents, who are ill-served by Black media and largely unaware that they are being betrayed. Just as critically,there is no mechanism to fund progressive challengers who might cauterize the deep wounds that have been inflicted on the CBC and Black electoral politics, generally.
Show me the money!
Black progressives – and Black voters – desperately need a PAC. In previous decades, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, although never lavishly funded, served a useful purpose. But now, with the Caucus infested with Quislings and freelancers, the CBC PAC’s primary goal of preserving the seats of incumbents merely feeds the cancer. The Caucus’s PAC Chairman is none other than Rep. Albert Wynn (MD), one of the four CBC “Eunuchs of War” who voted to give George Bush his Iraq War Powers in 2002, and who voted with Republicans on all three “bright line” bills on bankruptcy, the estate tax, and energy, this month.
There is a hideous logic to Wynn’s chairmanship of the Caucus’s political funding mechanism. Wynn is the DLC’s point man in the Caucus. The DLC is, first and foremost, a clearing house for corporate contributions to the Democratic party – they’re the guys who impose a business-friendly “litmus test” to candidates and incumbents, the kind of test that William “Lacy” Clay, of St. Louis, may be hoping to pass, although he eschews any “litmus tests” from progressive quarters.
Wynn shares DLC membership with Harold Ford, Jr., who aspires to become a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, in 2006. There is little doubt that Ford is going to get help from the CBC PAC in his ever-rightward political trajectory. “There has been no formal decision made regarding Harold Ford's candidacy," Rep. Wynn told FOX News in March, "but I am confident that the Congressional Black Caucus PAC would consider him favorably. I anticipate we will give him as much support as we did Senator [Barack] Obama."
That’s the problem.
No more impunity
It is Black people’s job to clean up our own electoral house, but it is also white progressives’ obligation to support the fumigation. Progressives in the CBC, who are still in the great majority, must act as a body to establish their own PAC whose funding of incumbents and candidates will be based on affirmation of “bright line” positions on issues held dear by the Black electorate. We at The Black Commentator suggest that Representatives John Conyers (MI) and Barbara Lee (CA), CBC members of impeccable integrity, make the historic plunge in rejecting the fatal false unity that has paralyzed Black America’s most prized political institution: the Congressional Black Caucus.
We understand that such a break is painful. But the charade of Black Caucus unity cannot be allowed to continue, when the end result is impunity for those who eagerly join with the enemy in savaging our blood-won rights. Since 2002, corporate money has altered the Black political landscape, forever. We can no longer indulge in “head count” politics, that measure African American progress by the number of Black faces in high places. The Black Caucus is not better simply because, at 44 members (with Illinois Senator Barack Obama), it is bigger than ever. In fact, the CBC is infinitely worse than when it numbered far less: an ineffectual skin-group that cannot take a position on “bright line” issues, and can henceforth be expected to endorse only bland, feel-good consensus causes that most glad-handing Republicans could embrace.
That’s not what the Black public expects, and demands. We have faith in our people, and believe that David Scott, the “Worst Black Congressperson,” can be defeated in his majority Black suburban Atlanta district in the Democratic primary by a progressive armed with only $200,000 – versus a Scott corporate war chest of up to $1.5 million.
We will never outspend the corporations and their clients, but Black folks respond when you show the “flag” – when it is clear that you are on their side – because we have a life and death stake in politics, and we hate racial treason. It kills us, literally.
It is critically important that the flag be unfurled, now. All serious studies show that African Americans are so disaffected with the Democratic Party that large pluralities and majorities desire an independent Black political party. These are not voices from the Right, but from the Left. They warn us that the Black political class must become unequivocally committed to Black mass interests, as opposed to their own ambitions, or there will be a revolt. In the absence of an alternative to the status quo, we can expect a mass abstention from the electoral process, a phenomenon that is already quite evident among Black youth.
Progressive Black PAC
The creation of a Progressive Black PAC will require the drawing of “bright lines” for candidates that seek support. This is a necessary exercise, which will define the limits of acceptable Black political behavior. In this era, in which corporate institutions have decreed, through their heavily funded think tanks, that there is no Black Political Consensus, it is vital that we reaffirm its existence – and put our money where our principles are.
The Black Commentator has not asked Representatives Conyers and Lee if they would take the lead in establishing a Progressive Black PAC. We put forward their names because – it is what they should do. There are other candidates who should also enlist themselves in the fight to defend the Black polity from corporate intrigues at this frightening juncture in history. But we have no illusions about the availability of money, and are well aware that African Americans have little history of involvement in money-politics – outside of the church.
So let us be frank: the liberal PACs that have raised many tens of millions of dollars to oppose the Republican agenda must understand that they cannot possibly succeed if the Black polity – by far the most dependably progressive ethnic group – is shattered by confusion and internal betrayal. They must help kick-start the Progressive Black PAC. African Americans like John Conyers and Barbara Lee have labored in the vineyards of democracy for decades, and should be supported in this crucial project among their own people.
Those of us who are from the South may remember an old saying: “I ain’t fattening no frogs for snakes.” It means we will no longer invest our hopes, dreams and resources in people whose ambitions lead them to turn against us.
The Congressional Black Caucus is infested with frogs. Let’s not fatten them.