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  • Writer's pictureDr. Julianne Malveaux


All too often, the Congressional Black Caucus gets a bad

rap. What do they do, many ask. What have they recently

accomplished? Are they leaning on their revolutionary origins,

their founding in 1971, the once widely publicized People's

Budget? Have they become go-along to get-along politicians as


These are reasonable questions that I often raise myself,

often so frustrated by Congressional inaction that I don't see

the big picture, the lovely picture of more than fifty Black

members of Congress, when we once had only one at a time,

and with the many ways that their collective action makes a

difference. All too often, it is not what they do but what they

prevent by working to stop the foolish impulses of some of the

Republicans who would oppose our Black existence.

I was reminded of the efficacy of the Congressional Black

Caucus when I recently interviewed Dr. Sherice Jenaye Nelson,

a Howard University-educated political scientist whose recent

book, The Congressional Black Caucus: Fifty Years of

Fighting for Equality (Archway Publishing, 2020), recounts

the history of Black political participation at the Congressional

level. This sister scholar has done meticulous work describing

the many ways the Congressional Black Caucus has been

enormously impactful. In our radio conversation, though, she

also talked about the limitations that CBC members face

because of their ideological diversity and their need to be

reelected to make change.

My idols are the activists like Congresswomen Maxine

Waters (CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), Barbara Lee (CA), and

Karen Bass (CA). Newcomers like Cori Bush (MO) and Lucy

McBath (GA) have also earned my admiration for their strong

positions and willingness to go against the grain. At the same

time, some will go nameless who don't much step up or speak

up. Dr. Nelson reminded me that some of them don't have the

freedom to speak, partly because they represent majority-

white districts or aren't that radical, being elected because they

are & moderates.

Still, they can sometimes be counted to vote with their

African American colleagues, and those are the votes that

count. Writing them off can be counterproductive when we

need to get things done. Don't get me wrong – we should call

them on their racial ambivalence when we need to. At the same

time, during this Black History Month, I'm willing to dial back

some of the criticism and look at the very many excellent

things the Congressional Black Caucus has done.

Dr. Sherise Jenaye Nelson's book is one worth reading. It

speaks to the foreign p9licy the CBC has done historically,

es0pecially around Africa issues (Congressman Ron Dellyms’

championship to the Free South Africa movement is notable)

and Caribbean issues, especially around Haiti. Domestically,

Congressman James Clyburn (SC) HBCU advocacy is laudable,

as is Congresswoman Alma Adma’s (NC) work forming the

bicameral, bipartisan HBCU Caucus. There's more, and you'll

have to read the book to get the whole story.

I'm lifting these Black folk during this Black History

Month because they deserve it. At the same time, I can't

completely take my critic hat off. It is shameful that so many

did not support HR 40 when Congressman John Conyers (MI)

lived. It is commendable that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson

Lee has taken the baton from him and championed the

reparations cause, and with the help of organizations like

NCOBRA (the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in

America) and NAARC (the National African American

Reparations Commission, an organization sponsored by the

Institute of the Black World), garnered 215 co-sponsors for the

legislation. Why aren't more Black members of Congress more

enthusiastic about economic justice and reparations? Political

considerations notwithstanding, this is a just cause.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has annually

sponsored a Phoenix Awards Dinner at its annual legislative

forum. The awards reference the closing speech of

Congressman George White, who was the African American

post-Reconstruction member of Congress (1897-1901). He

highlighted Black progress since enslavement and said that,

like the phoenix, we would rise. We have140,000 farms

and homes, valued in the neighborhood of

$750,000,000, and personal property valued about

$170,000,000. We have raised about $11,000,000 for

educational purposes…We are operating successfully

several banks, commercial enterprises among our

people in the Southland, including one silk mill and one

cotton factory. We have 32,000 teachers in the schools

of the country; we have built, with the aid of our friends,

about 20,000 churches, and support seven colleges".

Congressman White spoke of progress. There is

still much room for advancement. The Congressional

Black Caucus members are agents of progress. Criticize

them, if you will, but embrace them. They are the

conscience of Congress. They are our champions.


Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean

of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA.

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