Posted on September 7, 2021

The Congressional Black Caucus: Powerful, Diverse and Newly Complicated

Astead W. Herndon, New York Times, August 21, 2021

The Congressional Black Caucus is the largest it has ever been, jumping to 57 members this year after a period of steady growth. The 50-year-old group, which includes most Black members of Congress and is entirely Democratic, is also more diverse, reflecting growing pockets of the Black electorate: millennials, progressives, suburban voters, those less tightly moored to the Democratic Party.

But while a thread of social justice connects one generation to the next, the influx of new members from varying backgrounds is testing the group’s long-held traditions in ways that could alter the future of Black political power in Washington.

The newcomers, shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement rather than the civil rights era, urge Democrats to go on the offensive regarding race and policing, pushing an affirmative message about how to overhaul public safety. They seek a bolder strategy on voting rights and greater investment in the recruitment and support of Black candidates.

Perhaps more significant than any ideological or age divide, however, is the caucus’s fault line of political origin stories — between those who made the Democratic establishment work for them and those who had to overcome the establishment to win.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat and the most powerful Black lawmaker in the House, said in an interview that the group still functioned as a family. But that family has grown to include people like Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, an outspoken progressive who defeated a caucus member in a hotly contested primary last year, and Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois, whose district is overwhelmingly white.


In interviews, more than 20 people close to the C.B.C. — including several members, their senior aides and other Democrats who have worked with the group — described the shifting dynamics of the leading organization of Black power players in Washington.

The caucus is a firm part of the Democratic establishment, close to House leadership and the relationship-driven world of political consulting and campaigns. However, unlike other groups tied to party leaders, the caucus is perhaps the country’s most public coalition of civil rights stalwarts, ostensibly responsible for ensuring that an insider game shaped by whiteness can work for Black people.

Today, the C.B.C. has swelling ranks and a president who has said he owes his election to Black Democrats. There is a strong chance that when Speaker Nancy Pelosi eventually steps down, her successor will be a member of the group. At the same time, the new lawmakers and their supporters are challenging the group with a simple question: Whom should the Congressional Black Caucus be for?

The group’s leadership and political action committee have typically focused on supporting Black incumbents and their congressional allies in re-election efforts. But other members, especially progressive ones, call for a more combative activist streak, like Ms. Bush’s, that challenges the Democratic Party in the name of Black people. Moderate members in swing districts, who reject progressive litmus tests like defunding police departments or supporting a Green New Deal, say the caucus is behind on the nuts and bolts of modern campaigning and remains too pessimistic about Black candidates’ chances in predominantly white districts.


Political strategy is often the dividing line among members — not policy. The Clyburn-led veterans have hugged close to Ms. Pelosi to rise through the ranks, and believe younger members should follow their example. They have taken a zero-tolerance stance toward primary challengers to Democratic incumbents. They have recently pushed for a pared-down approach to voting rights legislation, attacking proposals for public financing of campaigns and independent redistricting committees, which have support from many Democrats in Congress but could change the makeup of some Black members’ congressional districts.


In a special election this month in Ohio to replace former Representative Marcia Fudge, the newly appointed housing secretary and a close ally of Mr. Clyburn’s, the caucus’s political arm took the unusual step of endorsing one Black candidate over another for an open seat. The group backed Shontel Brown — a Democrat who is close to Ms. Fudge — over several Black rivals, including Nina Turner, a former state senator and a prominent leftist ally of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.


“The reasons they endorsed had nothing to do with the uplift of Black people,” Ms. Turner said, citing her support of policies like reparations for descendants of enslaved people and student debt cancellation. “It had everything to do about preserving a decorum and a consensus type of power model that doesn’t ruffle anybody’s feathers.”