Why the Black Caucus is becoming relevant again

For the record, I’ve never been a fan of the Congressional Black Caucus. I worried about their relative silence when the Clinton administration championed so-called welfare reform, perpetuated drug sentencing disparities and instituted three strikes laws that kept far too many African-American men locked up and locked out.

I worried when the organization raised some $55 million in contributions from corporations between 2004 and 2008 then promptly spent most of that money on social events and a new headquarters building on Washington’s prestigious Embassy Row. It’s telling that in 2007 the CBC paid more for an event caterer than it spent on academic scholarships for minority students. It was later learned that many of those scholarship went, not to the sons and daughters of deserving constituents, but to people lucky enough to be related to members of the CBC.

I worried when the vast majority of the CBC membership lined up behind Hilary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic presidential preference primary and stayed there long after it was apparent then Senator Barack Obama would be the nominee. Each of them flat out ignored the tidal wave of support coming out of their districts and instead followed their own political agendas. They were in it for themselves, I thought.

Then too, I worried that too many of our leaders were treating the halls of Congress like a retirement community, delivering little in the way of constituent services, traveling on a variety of junkets and dining with lobbyists. In my own district it’s a worthless exercise to call on my Congressman, who is a legendary member of the CBC, for anything more than a form letter thanking me for taking the time to write or call.

I stopped attending CBC Week in D.C. over a decade ago.

So when I found myself defending their right to sound off on black unemployment and the escalating crisis in urban America, I had reason for pause. After all, what had the CBC done for any of us lately? I wondered what happened to Black leadership in this country when Black America was falling into the margins, no longer a critical part of the public discourse.

I felt hoodwinked, bamboozled and deceived.

Today, as the economy continues to fail us, far too many Americans — black, white and otherwise — remain out of work. Scheming Wall Street bankers, who had bet the ranch on sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps, confiscated our homes with fast tracked foreclosures that defied the law. Those same bankers came to us for loans, claiming they were too big to fail, but then paid nothing in federal taxes.

Hoarding billions in profits, they refused to reinvest those dollars in the communities that were most negatively impacted. No new jobs. No new small business loans. And Washington let them get away with it.

Month after month, we watched the national unemployment rate climb. Over 9 percent of all Americans are out of work and double that for African-Americans. In some communities that rate is nearly 40 percent for black men. And that’s just the number we count on the record. The much-ballyhooed black middle class has been all but decimated. I certainly did not want to blame black leaders. And not this president.

For the most part, like most African-Americans, I did not speak those frustrations aloud. Blame it on our cultural heritage, that protect-the-village mentality that says it’s wrong to speak critically of other African-Americans. I had little desire to empower an already emboldened Tea Party. Blame it on the fear of crippling President Obama at a time when he needs us most.

To its credit, the Obama administration fought in meaningful ways for health care reform and to repair broken public education. They believed that, in doing so, those reforms would help those who had been most negatively impacted by the most devastating economy downturn in modern times. They believed that if they were able to do the right thing for all Americans then black America would benefit too.

The theory was well intentioned, but good intentions won’t feed the baby. The bootstraps snapped.

Today, African-Americans are disproportionately among the long-term unemployed. Sending our kids to college now takes a back seat to saving the house and putting food on the table. Going to the doctor for routine preventive medical services is no longer an option when we’re trying to stave off bankruptcy. If America has a cold, black America has pneumonia. And unfortunately, there is no specific and concerted effort to do anything about it. There is no black agenda. Not now, not since Dr. King was alive. Not from this Congress, not from this White House.

Where, I asked, was the CBC? Somebody ought to say something.

Then came Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Over recent days, the gentlewoman from California has begun to speak boldly about the problems we’re facing. She said, in a nutshell, “we’re tired.” Not only did she tell the Tea Party to “go straight to hell”, for the first time she publicly revealed the long-rumored divide between the CBC and the White House.

Now, I don’t know if she’s right in her push back on the Obama administration. The immediate response from Obama supporters has been outright rebuke. She’s been accused of “political malfeasance” and called a traitor. “How come we can’t be like Republicans?” one of my more learned friends asked. “You don’t see them criticizing Republican presidents like that. They know how to stick together.”

The reality is the Oval Office isn’t where hope and change happens. But what no one calculated, including the CBC, is that an obstructionist Congress would spend more energy trying to regain power than putting America back to work, that political agendas would come before economic healing. No one, not even President Obama and his studied advisors, believed for a moment that the Tea Party would be willing to roll our economy off a cliff than see the wealthiest Americans pay a narrow dime in taxes.

I won’t blame President Obama for what’s happening on the other side of the aisle. The GOP’s cult-like mentality has been a proverbial handbrake on our economy. They don’t want things to get better. They just want to win.

That said, no matter the messenger or the rough history the CBC has had with this White House, I won’t be the one to tell Rep. Waters to stand down. She’s right to demand more focus on the issues confronting urban America. She’s right to point to soaring unemployment rates and cry foul. She’s right to stick her finger in somebody’s chest and say “what about us?” If Rep. Waters is willing to take the fight to a do-nothing Congress, we ought to be willing to stand with her.

So, maybe it is time we “unleash” the CBC. Let’s turn them loose on the ideologues that have their foot planted firmly on America’s neck. If President Obama cannot afford open displays of anger, let Maxine Waters do the job. If the Tea Party can fight, so can we.