For the Congressional Black Caucus and its 42 members, these should be the best of times.
The caucus boasts unprecedented power on Capitol Hill, with four of its members chairing major House committees and 18 others wielding subcommittee gavels. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) serves as majority whip, and African-American lawmakers find themselves a key bloc of votes on everything from health care reform to climate change to ethics rule revisions. Mega-corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Toyota will shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars this week to sponsor the annual legislative conference hosted by the CBC Foundation, the group’s nonprofit arm.
And, of course, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, now resides in the White House. Obama is scheduled to speak to the group Saturday night.
“This is a triumphant moment,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the CBC’s chairwoman. “After all, a member of the CBC was elected president.”
Yet for many CBC members, there’s also an underlying sense of nervousness and concern about the shifting political landscape in the eight months since Obama was sworn in. The sudden explosion of tea party groups, with right-wing protesters carrying signs depicting Obama as an African witch doctor or in a Nazi uniform, has infuriated some black lawmakers, who say such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated for a white president.
Following Rep. Joe Wilson’s now infamous outburst — the South Carolina Republican screamed out “You lie!” during Obama’s recent address to Congress — Clyburn led the charge to have Wilson punished. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), another CBC member, speculated that Wilson’s scream could signal the return of “folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again, riding through the countryside.”
And the GOP attacks on the anti-poverty group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which registered hundreds of thousands of new voters last cycle, many of them African-Americans, have also angered some black Democrats.
Obama has downplayed the question of whether race plays a role in the opposition to his policies, suggesting that “anti-government” views and media hype are more likely culprits than racism. But to thousands of African-American leaders who will attend the four-day CBC conference, the specter of resurgent racism is more than media hype or anti-government sentiment. For many of them, the talk of a “post-racial America,” so prevalent in the period following Obama’s Inauguration, is unrealistic.
“It is a great year for the CBC to be celebrating. Many of us have spent a lifetime getting where we are now,” Clyburn said in an interview with POLITICO. “But people who think the election of Barack Obama puts us in a post-racial world are being a bit naive at best.”
Clyburn said the U.S. economic downturn has made it easier for those who seek to exploit racial tension for their own political goals, and he suggested that some of the opposition to Obama’s health care reform proposal is racism “hiding behind something else.”
“I would say that those of us who study the history of this country, we know that it was economic conditions in the South that gave cover to Nathan Bedford Forrest after the Civil War,” Clyburn said, referring to the former Confederate general who helped found the Ku Klux Klan. “Without the economic conditions of the South, he would never have been successful in organizing the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized so much of that region of the country.”
“One thing it shows us is that we don’t live in a post-racial society,” agreed Elsie Scott, president and CEO of the CBC Foundation. Scott believes that the conservative movement is using the same playbook in attacking Obama that it used on Bill Clinton when he was president — vilify Obama and his allies personally while simultaneously attacking them politically.
As evidence, she cites the successful effort to oust Van Jones, an African-American adviser to Obama on environmental policy. Jones resigned his White House post two weeks ago, claiming he was the victim of a “vicious smear campaign” by Fox News’s Glenn Beck and other conservative commentators.
“The president was fully vetted in the campaign, so they’re looking at other people around the president,” Scott said. “Many people feel there’s a whole master plan to take back the Congress.”
Lee, in her first term as CBC chairwoman, was cautious when asked whether racism is behind the deluge of anti-Obama rhetoric. “It’s hard to say,” she said. She would rather talk about the “huge structural inequities” that still face blacks and other minority groups in U.S. society.
Another issue facing the CBC is the ethics problems of some of its most senior members. Members of the caucus have long complained that black lawmakers are targeted for ethics or criminal investigations at a far higher rate than are their white colleagues, and the group formed its own task force earlier this year to look into this issue.
Six black House Democrats — Reps. Charles Rangel of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan and Maxine Waters of California and Delegate Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands — are under investigation for ethics allegations, while another member, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), has been linked to the criminal case against indicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The most serious allegations so far are against Rangel, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. While Rangel has denied any wrongdoing in his personal finances, he has been forced to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes and has had to file amended disclosure reports showing hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unreported assets. Democrats have resisted GOP calls for Rangel to step down as committee chairman, but a negative report by the ethics committee could force Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand, say Democratic insiders.
The CBC conference, which runs Wednesday to Saturday, is heavy on politics and policy, but there will be plenty on nonwork events, too. A jazz concert and gospel extravaganza are scheduled for Thursday night, as well as a big gathering known as the Black Party Xperience. A fashion show will take place Friday night. It’s also heavy on corporate dollars.
Thanks to the growing power of black lawmakers, the CBC Foundation has become a fundraising magnet, raking in millions from corporate sponsors in tax-deductible contributions. In 2007, the last year for which records are available, the foundation took in more than $8.5 million and had assets worth over $9.4 million, including its headquarters by Dupont Circle.
For this year’s conference, drug giant Eli Lilly & Co. ponied up at least $500,000 to be a “premier donor” for the four-day conference. AstraZeneca and Coca-Cola are “presidential donors,” meaning they gave $250,000 or more to the foundation. Altria, Anheuser-Busch, State Farm, Verizon, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Dell, Fannie Mae and Lockheed Martin are all “congressional donors,” at $100,000 each.
“We know many corporations are attending our [conference] because members of Congress will be there,” admitted Scott. “They may not be able to use us to buy influence with them. They use us to have access.”