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Black Caucus conference offers many things, but do federal lawmakers lack a clear agenda?

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Sep 27, 2017 - 1:00:19 PM

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Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., speaks at the unveiling of Nielsen's seventh annual Diverse Intelligence Series report on African-Americans at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation annual conference in Washington, Sept. 21. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
WASHINGTON—Even before President Donald J. Trump used common and vulgar street language to elevate the 70 percent of the NFL players who are Black to a new “rock star” status, and even before the solidarity demonstrated by athletes and owners on many, many professional teams in multiple sports dominated national news coverage; national attention to Black politics at the biggest and glitziest, Legislative Conference in the 47 year history of the Congressional Black Caucus was going fairly unnoticed.

Tens of thousands attended the hundreds of workshops and “braintrusts,” and what critics deride as “grown-up Jack & Jill cotillions,” this year, proclaiming “And Still I Rise,” as they did their work and proceeded to many, many fancy celebrations led by the CBC’s 49 members, including two senators and one Republican.

There was even a foreign head of state and two White elected officials who addressed the conference: Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2016; and Mary Cheh, a member of the District of Columbia Council.

This participation with the CBC by Whites, along with the ongoing ties to corporations and academic institutions is recognition of the CBC’s influence, even as a minority caucus within the minority Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives. “I think it’s more that folks want to be associated with the CBC because we are so effective,” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Ga.) told The Final Call. The yearly conference was held the week of Sept. 19-24.

It is not altogether clear, however, what the CBC is trying to achieve. “It’s not that clear to me that there was a clear enough focus by the caucus,” Dr. Clarence Lusane, chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University said in an interview.

Hip hop artists and activists participate in panel discussion including from left to right, RaheemDeVaughn, Tweet, David Banner, Malik Yusef, Vic Mensa and T.I.

Water: Access, Opportunity, and Environmental Sustainability in the Global Black Community hosted by Dr. Julianne Malveaux at the CBC Annual Legislative weekend. Photos: CBC Foundation/Facebook

“I think what they tend to do at the ALC is that they have a wide range of issues, which is good on the one hand, but it also kind of diffuses the message. I’m not sure there is a coherent and clear message where there really needs to be at this point. I think you have to have the complete Black political focus on going after this administration, because it is attacking every single thing the Black community has fought for, for the last 200 years.”

Along the way, there were some minor conference miscues. A planned reception at the White House in recognition of the CBC conference was canceled. “We never announced this reception you’re referencing,” a White House official told BuzzFeed News in response to questions about White House participation in CBC activities.

One CBC member—Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.)—has been clear and unapologetic in her expressed contempt for President Trump. As she has done at many forums recently, she spoke about impeaching President Trump at the CBC Town Hall on Civil Rights. “Don’t come here and tell me, ‘Maxine, you keep on doing what you do.’ But when you gonna give me some support?” she asked.

Moderator Jeff Johnson introduces a very special guest, his son Baldwin, at the Town Hall Session for #CBCFALC17
“How many in your organization have said impeach 45? ‘Well, they don’t have what it takes. They don’t have the laws yet.’ Impeachment is about whatever the Congress says it is. There is no law that dictates impeachment. What the Constitution says is ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ and we define that.

“Bill Clinton got impeached because he lied. Here you have a president, who I can tell you and guarantee you is in collusion with the Russians to undermine our democracy. Here you have a president who obstructed justice. And here you have a president who lies every day.

“When is the Black community going to say, ‘Impeach him?’ It’s time to go after him. I don’t hear you!” Rep. Waters told the group.

But as a platform for raising ideas which benefit Africa, the CBC has great value. “To the CBC, along with the countless advocates and organizations that have been of tremendous assistance to Liberia, helping us come back from civil war, through the Ebola crisis and now into our historic elections. I take this opportunity to express sincere gratitude and appreciation for your consistent contributions to the people of Liberia,” Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia told a forum.

President Sirleaf thanked Rep. Karen Bass, host of The Africa Braintrust, whom she described as “a true leader in the U.S. Congress; a great friend of Africa; and a dedicated supporter of Liberia.” She thanked the late Donald Payne (D-N.J.) who once chaired the House Africa Subcommittee, and former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), who, as member of the House Appropriations Committee, “helped ensure Liberia’s democracy dividends were realized.”

But, compared to the policy achievements of other House caucuses like the Tea Party and Liberty caucuses, the CBC’s enormous voting power is taken for granted by the House and Senate Democratic leadership, and totally ignored by the Republican majority. CBC members are part of an ignored minority in a virtually powerless House system that decides everything by simple majority vote. CBC members are left to getting money for their constituents back home rather than affecting national policy.

“Your question assumes certain things that are just not accurate,” Rep. McEachin said. “For instance, the Congressional Black Caucus is the largest of the caucuses within the Democratic Caucus, and so it does have influence and it does have sway on Democratic policy. The other thing is that your question assumes that all things are partisan, which they’re not. 

“Your question assumes that, for instance in my case, I’ve been able to get hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of grant money into my district already, and I’ve been here eight months. I take great pride in that, but someone had to bring the issue to them, so that I was aware that people needed help.

“And so your suggestion that because we are a minority in a minority caucus, that we are ineffective or ineffectual I think, is without merit,” said Rep. McEachin. But some Black scholars feel the CBC conference has become “all sizzle, and no steak.”

The annual CBC gathering drew thousands to Washington, D.C. (R) Moderator Jeff Johnson introduces a very special guest, his son Baldwin, at the Town Hall Session for #CBCFALC17.

“I think it really would be great if the CBC would take the time—either through journals or through some other means—where they could put a clear agenda out and just focus on that,” said Dr. Lusane. “Because if you ask what’s the CBC’s agenda at this point, nobody can tell you. It’s everything and nothing.

“I think it’s a matter that historically they’ve kind of tried to have everybody have a little bit of an input, but they’ve really got to zero in and have a laser-beam focus on the issues, because we’re talking about generational losses under this administration.”