The corporate Right has succeeded in establishing
a “coalition of the willing” within the Congressional Black Caucus
(CBC), as shown by last week’s votes on bankruptcy and estate tax
legislation. The defection of ten
of 41 voting CBC members to the Republicans on bankruptcy, and eight
on repeal of the estate tax signals that corporate-controlled membership
in the CBC has reached critical mass, encouraging members who are
not part of the Caucus’s conservative core group to betray their
constituencies, as well.
"The G.O.P. is practicing Robin Hood in reverse,"
said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (MI), after last week’s lopsided Democratic
defeats. "Last night they repealed the estate tax, a gift to
the wealthiest individuals in our society. Today they pushed through
the special-interest bankruptcy bill, punishing the very poorest
members of society.” But Conyers’ critique should apply with doubly
damning effect to fellow Caucus members, including three who are
also members of the Progressive Congressional Caucus but voted with
Republicans on one or the other measure.
The growing rot in the CBC must be viewed in the context
of massive corporate intervention in Black electoral politics, conceived
in rightwing think tanks in the mid-90s and emerging full-blown
in the 2002 election cycle, when Denise Majette (GA), David Scott
(GA), and Artur Davis (AL) won congressional seats. That’s also
the year when rightwing apprentice Cory Booker nearly captured City
Hall in Newark, New Jersey. Although public attention has focused
on the Bush administration’s faith-based bribes to woo Black preachers
to the GOP, the far more dangerous prong of the offensive aims to
subvert Black Democrats from within. Corporate funding and media
support have been placed at the disposal of Black Democrats who
“leave the reservation,” so to speak – i.e., those who reject, at
least selectively, the historical Black Political Consensus. Barely
three years after the corporate intervention was launched (see ,
April 5, 2002),
it is bearing strange, mutant fruit in the heartland of the Black
polity. The looming dissolution of the Congressional Black Caucus
as a cohesive political force seems well underway.
Voting with the enemy
The ten Black lawmakers who helped the credit card
companies feel positively “giddy,” as the New York Times put it,
include the Hard Core Four: Blue Dog Harold
Ford, Jr. (TN) and Artur Davis (AL), who, along with Gregory
Meeks (NY) carried the bankruptcy banner
for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC); Blue Dog Sanford Bishop
(GA); and the absolutely Worst Black Congressperson (see ,
2005) Blue Dog-DLCer David Scott (GA).
Also among the Republican fellow-travelers were William
Jefferson (LA), who is not a member of the DLC or Blue Dogs, but
often votes like it, and DLCer Albert Wynn (MD). (Wynn, along with
Ford, Bishop and Jefferson, were among the Four
Eunuchs of the Caucus that voted to give George Bush his Iraq
War Powers, in October, 2002.)
Florida’s Kendrick Meek, who flirts with the Right
on occasion, made common cause with conservatives on bankruptcy,
as did freshman Houston Congressman Al Green.
Emanuel Cleaver, a first term congressman and former
mayor of Kansas City, was one of only two members of the Progressive
Caucus – and the only Black – to vote for the bankruptcy bill. Eighteen
African American lawmakers also belong to the 50-plus member Progressive
Each of the Hard Core Four most consistent Black sell-outs
on Capitol Hill – Davis (AL), Ford (TN), Bishop (GA) and Scott (GA)
– hails from among the ten states that are hardest hit by bankruptcy.
But every Black lawmaker that voted for the Republican measure has,
in fact, sided with the predatory lenders that besiege African American
neighborhoods. According to a study by the National Community Reinvestment
about 29 percent of African Americans resort to high-cost loans
when buying or refinancing their homes – vastly increasing their
future risk of bankruptcy. Map overlays provided by the journal
Southern Studies show that concentrations of predatory lending facilities
hug closely to the contours of Black neighborhoods in Atlanta
On the most fundamental level, the cleavage in the
Black Caucus shows the power of corporate money to erode notions
of fairness – a rejection of privilege – that are central to the
historical Black Political Consensus.
"The essential philosophical and political divide
over the bankruptcy bill boils down to whether you see filing for
bankruptcy as a right or a privilege," John D. McMickle, a
former the bankruptcy lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee
told the Washington
Post. "The new law makes bankruptcy a privilege reserved
only for people who can prove they can't repay their debts."
If nothing else, African Americans expect that their
representatives will stand against the privileges of wealth – which,
in the United States, are nearly inseparable from white privilege.
Instead, ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus sided with
finance capital, and against fairness for their constituents and
stability for their neighborhoods.
Even more than the treatment of people facing bankruptcy,
the estate tax is a bedrock issue that separates those who seek
social justice from the forces that would reinforce rigid societal
stratification. Eight Black Caucus members joined the Walton
family, owners of Wal-Mart, in favor of projecting family wealth
and class privilege into the far horizons. Depressingly, two additional
lawmakers who share Black and Progressive Caucus membership voted
to repeal the estate tax: William “Lacy” Clay (MO) and Sheila Jackson-Lee
(TX). They were joined by CBC members Edolphus Towns (NY), freshman
G.K. Butterfield (NC), and four of the lawmakers who also voted
for the bankruptcy bill: Jefferson (LA), Bishop (GA), Scott (GA)
and Wynn (MD) – last week’s grand-slam betrayers.
Oddly enough, two of the Caucus’s Hard Core Four –
Tennessee’s Harold Ford, Jr. and Alabama’s Artur Davis – voted against
estate tax repeal, as did bankruptcy bill supporters Gregory Meeks
(NY), Kendrick Meek (FL), Al Green (TX) and Emanuel Cleaver (MO).
However, it must be noted that less than a decade
ago, only one Caucus member would have been expected to help insulate
the power of inherited wealth: Rev. Floyd Flake, who represented
a Queens, New York district for six terms (1986-1997). Flake stuck
out like a sore thumb as the CBC’s most conservative member. He
is now a key player in the national Right network, a school privatization
profiteer with the title of Senior Fellow at the Manhattan
Institute. As such, Flake is a full-time operative in the corporate
machine that is driving the rightward tilt among Black politicians
– not to be confused with the political leanings of the Black electorate,
who remain substantially supportive of the historical Black Political
Consensus on issues of social justice, racial progress, the
obligations of state and federal government, and peace.
In a dizzyingly short span of time, we have seen the
Congressional Black Caucus’s near-unanimity on fundamental issues
held dear by the vast majority of African Americans, crumble. This
crisis in Black leadership is the result of a sea-change
on the Right which –steeped historically in reflexive racism – only
about a decade ago finally came to the realization that an alternative
Black Democratic leadership might be created through the
power of money. The awful crack in the Caucus is proof that the
Right’s strategy is working – they are cutting through the
CBC like butter, and that is only the most dramatic manifestation
of the all-out assault on the Black Political Consensus.
It is not due to the charismatic force of their personalities
that three of the Hard Core Four (Ford, Davis and Scott) are second,
third and fourth, respectively, in corporate contributions (see
followed by Louisiana’s William Jefferson, supporter of the bankruptcy
bill, estate tax repeal, and Bush’s Iraq War Powers.
“Bright lines” must be drawn delineating acceptable
political behavior in Black America. Locating the boundaries of
such behavior is not difficult: the Black Political Consensus is
based on shared history and experience, and it is only in the last
few years that corporate America has moved decisively to induce
Black politicians to violate the basic tenets of the Consensus.
However, it must be recognized that we live in a brand new Black
political environment, recently imposed by corporate capital. There
will never again be near-unanimity within the Congressional Black
Caucus on issues fundamental to a progressive agenda, unless
and until mechanisms are forged that punish betrayal and reward
the righteous. That means, among many other things, money – and
certainly not funding from the likes of BET’s Bob Johnson,
George Bush’s Black point man on repeal of the estate tax and Social
There is a generation’s worth of work ahead.
Co-Publishers Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are working on a book to
be titled, Barack Obama and the Crisis of Black Leadership.
In future issues, they will explore Black progressive empowerment