On MLK Anniversary, Black Numbers Are Up in Congress, but Power Is Down

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., center, accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 11, 2010, following a meeting with President Barack Obama. From left are, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., Rep Hank Johnson, D-Ga., Lee, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.,and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)  
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Beth Reinhard
Aug. 26, 2013, 2 a.m.

When Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. de­livered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago this week, just five Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans held seats in Con­gress. There are 44 today.

But those num­bers mask a hard real­ity: Even with an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an in the White House, blacks ar­gu­ably have less clout in Con­gress than they did in 1963.

“If you look at the le­gis­la­tion from that era, it was 1,000 times more fa­vor­able for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans than it is now be­cause they were deal­ing with civil rights, labor law, and the min­im­um wage,” said Dav­id Bos­it­is, a schol­ar of black polit­ics at the Joint Cen­ter for Polit­ic­al and Eco­nom­ic Stud­ies. “What can col­lect­ively the black mem­bers of Con­gress point to that they have ac­com­plished in this Con­gress?”

Three pri­or­it­ies lis­ted on the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus’s web­site—pro­tect­ing vot­ing rights, passing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and main­tain­ing so­cial- and eco­nom­ic-safety nets—have little mo­mentum in the Re­pub­lic­an-dom­in­ated House.

Gun con­trol, which was a fo­cus of the most re­cent meet­ing between Pres­id­ent Obama and the CBC, has slid off the front burn­er since the Sen­ate failed to pass an as­sault -eapons ban in April.

The most sig­ni­fic­ant law to come out of Con­gress in years, which will help in­sure mil­lions of poor Amer­ic­ans, is be­ing re­buffed by gov­ernors throughout the South, where more than half of the black pop­u­la­tion lives.

And in a par­tic­u­larly bit­ter blow to black mem­bers, the Su­preme Court gut­ted part of the Vot­ing Rights Act in June, open­ing the door to states es­cal­at­ing vot­ing re­stric­tions.

For Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in Con­gress, it feels like they are go­ing back­wards.

“We don’t have the col­lect­ive im­pact that we should have, and we don’t have the re­la­tion­ship with Barack Obama that people think we have,” said Rep. Al­cee Hast­ings, who in 1992 was among the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans elec­ted to Con­gress from Flor­ida since Re­con­struc­tion. “I don’t have as much hope as I used to and, in some ways, great­er fears. It’s re­mark­able that we’ve come this far but damned up­set­ting that we still have so far to go.”

One key hurdle is ob­vi­ous: All of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in the House are Demo­crats serving in the minor­ity, with scarce hope for a takeover in 2014. No mat­ter their race or eth­ni­city, few House Demo­crats man­age to get their way in an in­sti­tu­tion where the ma­jor­ity rules. What’s more, an in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized polit­ic­al cli­mate has left Con­gress more grid­locked than ever. No one is get­ting much done, and the black mem­bers are no ex­cep­tion.

An­oth­er reas­on for their lim­ited in­flu­ence is that most come from re­l­at­ively safe vot­ing dis­tricts. Party lead­ers tend to dole out plum as­sign­ments and op­por­tun­it­ies to carry le­gis­la­tion to mem­bers fa­cing com­pet­it­ive elec­tions, a strategy that once al­lowed the smal­ler caucus of mod­er­ate Demo­crats known as the Blue Dogs to wield sig­ni­fic­ant clout. The ban on so-called ear­marks also pre­cludes black mem­bers (as well as their white col­leagues) from set­ting aside money for pet pro­jects in their dis­trict.

Hast­ings re­called vis­it­ing a city in his dis­trict re­cently where he had once dir­ec­ted $11 mil­lion for pro­grams for frail seni­ors and at-risk chil­dren.

“That money is taken away from me now,” he said. “I am dis­ap­poin­ted that as a rep­res­ent­at­ive, ex­cept for sym­bol­ic­ally, I am un­able to make the big im­pact that I would like to have made. But as the say­ing goes, the struggle con­tin­ues.”

Rep. Charles Ran­gel of New York, a found­ing mem­ber of the CBC in 1971, said, “This is the ap­pro­pri­ate time for a march, not just for com­mem­or­at­ing what happened 50 years ago but to reded­ic­ate ourselves to the struggle for civil rights.”

At the top of the agenda is heed­ing the Su­preme Court’s de­mand that Con­gress re­vamp a pro­vi­sion of the Vot­ing Rights Act that re­quired loc­al­it­ies with a his­tory of ra­cial bi­as to get fed­er­al ap­prov­al be­fore chan­ging vot­ing prac­tices. Al­though some black Demo­crats point to en­cour­aging signs from top Re­pub­lic­ans, such as House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor of Vir­gin­ia and Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee mem­ber Jim Sensen­bren­ner of Wis­con­sin, there ap­pears to be little mo­mentum for re­form in the House. The bur­den seems to be fall­ing to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which last week sued the state of Texas over its new voter ID law.

“The gains made un­der the Vot­ing Rights Act must be pre­served amid these threats to turn the clock back,” de­clared Rep. Bar­bara Lee, D-Cal­if., who spent part of her child­hood in Texas. “We have to be vi­gil­ant be­cause all would be lost if left up to the tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans.”

Former Rep. Al­len West, the lone Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus in 2011 and 2012, called blam­ing the GOP a “cop-out.” The caucus should get its pri­or­it­ies straight, he said, and spend more time rais­ing aware­ness about teen preg­nancy and pro­mot­ing school choice.

“I think the chal­lenge for the CBC, the NAACP, and oth­er groups is wheth­er their pri­or­it­ies are in line with what’s plaguing the black com­munity,” West said. “If you want to ex­pand the de­pend­ency so­ci­ety, that’s not what Re­pub­lic­ans or con­ser­vat­ives or even the black com­munity be­lieves in.”

The Sen­ate’s sole Afric­an-Amer­ic­an—Re­pub­lic­an Tim Scott of South Car­o­lina—chooses not to par­ti­cip­ate in the CBC.

“I’m not a mem­ber be­cause ul­ti­mately I be­lieve I get more done and that we’re bet­ter off not join­ing or­gan­iz­a­tions that cre­ate lines of de­lin­eation,” said Scott, who was ap­poin­ted in Decem­ber by Gov. Nikki Haley to serve out Jim De­Mint’s term. “They cer­tainly have some play­ers with in­flu­ence, but ul­ti­mately the CBC’s po­s­i­tions are in­con­sist­ent with where I think our coun­try needs to head. It’s a philo­sophy that the growth of gov­ern­ment is go­ing to make our people stronger and our people bet­ter, and I don’t think the an­swer is yes.”

The CBC has had its suc­cesses over the years. It pushed for anti-apartheid sanc­tions against South Africa in the mid-1980s, helped es­tab­lish King’s birth­day as a fed­er­al hol­i­day, and was a driv­ing force be­hind get­ting as­sist­ance to vic­tims of Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

More re­cently, Rep. Fre­der­ica Wilson, D-Fla., said the caucus has been ef­fect­ive on some lower-pro­file is­sues, such as mak­ing more fam­il­ies eli­gible for col­lege loans, com­pens­at­ing black farm­ers who faced dis­crim­in­a­tion, and dis­cour­aging pro­sec­utors from seek­ing harsh pris­on sen­tences for non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­ers.

“There’s only so much we can do in­di­vidu­ally, but there’s a great deal we can do as a caucus,” Wilson said. “You can’t al­ways do it in the pub­lic and in the press but you have to stick to­geth­er.” She sighed and ad­ded, “It’s not easy.”

Ex­acer­bat­ing the frus­tra­tions felt by some black Demo­crats is a sense of re­spons­ib­il­ity to carry on the leg­acy of the civil-rights move­ment amid pain­ful memor­ies of se­greg­a­tion and on­go­ing ra­cial in­equit­ies. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, who hails from one of the birth­places of the move­ment, noted that the me­di­an in­come for a fam­ily of four in her dis­trict, which is 64 per­cent black, is $30,327.

“Grow­ing up in Selma, Alabama, you grow up very con­scious of the fact that you are a be­ne­fi­ciary of the move­ment and that the best way you could strengthen the leg­acy of those whose shoulders you stand on is to con­tin­ue to press for so­cial and eco­nom­ic change,” Sewell said. “It’s a full-circle mo­ment for me, be­cause the is­sues that af­fected the dis­trict when I was a col­lege in­tern are still the is­sues now, 28 years later. It’s un­ac­cept­able to be in an in­sti­tu­tion where you can make a dif­fer­ence, and yet we’re not ad­dress­ing the ma­jor is­sues of the day.”

What keeps her go­ing? The por­trait of Shir­ley Chisholm, the first black wo­man elec­ted to Con­gress in 1969, hanging in the Cap­it­ol. “I get a pep in my step be­cause there’s no way my jour­ney is as hard as what she faced,” said Sewell, whose moth­er was the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to serve on the Selma City Coun­cil. “I can in no way be tired.”

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