Congressman James Clyburn has built his political career hammering out compromises behind the scenes. He has worked for economic growth in his eclectic South Carolina district, lobbying successfully for a Honda plant in Timmonsville, a significant increase in the state's share of federal highway funds, direct flights from Charleston to Chicago, and the deepening of Charleston Harbor. In Washington he has earned a reputation as a talented negotiator. "If the distance between you and the other person is five steps," Clyburn likes to say, "then you damn sure ought to be willing to take two steps." Plenty of representatives do their jobs according to the Clyburn model, but in addition to being the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, Clyburn is also the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). And that makes him very different indeed.
The contrast between Clyburn and his immediate predecessor, the brash and outspoken Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, is perhaps the clearest indication of the changing nature of the CBC. But as a rural southerner, Clyburn also differs from other heads of the CBC--Kweisi Mfume, Donald Payne, Edolphus Towns, and Ron Dellums in the 1990s--all of whom came from urban, economically depressed, and overwhelmingly black districts outside the South.
The switch to a rural southerner is no accident. Before the 1992 elections that sent 17 black freshmen to Congress--most of them from newly majority-minority districts in the South--the caucus drew almost all of its membership from big cities. Now the CBC is nearly twice the size, almost half southern and half female, and significantly rural and suburban. Layered upon this demographic transformation is a generational change, an influx of younger members who learned their politics in the post-civil rights era. Together these changes have made the caucus of today quite different from the caucus of 10 years ago.
The tension between pragmatism and ideology is nothing new in the CBC. As far back as 1974, only three years after it was founded, St. Louis Congressman Bill Clay told his colleagues that the caucus could not be both a legislative organization and a civil rights organization. To Clay, the conclusion was evident: Members had to be legislators first. But, if only by necessity, the CBC has a long tradition of focusing on the politics of moral resistance. The caucus has cast itself as the conscience of Congress, making up for a lack of votes with claims to legislative purity. For years its primary focus was its alternative budget, ignored by the rest of Congress. The idea wasn't so much to pass a budget--or even directly affect the legislative process--as it was to articulate a vision. And to do this, black representatives had to maintain a certain ideological purity. So members of the caucus didn't want to wrestle in the political mud for two reasons: It would weaken their moral authority, and they couldn't get what they wanted anyway.
But with 37 members, the caucus is no longer isolated from power. During the 103rd Congress, after the caucus's expansion but before the Republican take-over, the CBC vote was pivotal on 21 pieces of legislation. If the Democrats win back the House in November, black representatives will likely chair three full committees and 19 subcommittees. Now that they are almost fully integrated into the institution of Congress, CBC members can form coalitions and leverage votes as everybody else has for years. Albert Wynn, who represents suburban Prince George's County in Maryland, is one of the new black representatives trying to swim more in the mainstream. "I didn't come here to be anybody's conscience," he said when he took office in 1993. "I came here to negotiate." Harold Ford, Jr., who took over the Memphis seat from his father in 1996, also symbolizes a new pragmatism. With statewide ambitions, he has been careful not to seem as doctrinaire as his father and has bucked the rest of the caucus on some key issues, including national education testing. According to Frank Watkins, who worked for Jesse Jackson, Sr., and is now on the staff of Jesse Jackson, Jr., the younger Jackson is more liberal than his father but is also "much softer" stylistically.
The changing political style of the CBC reflects a number of distinct developments: generational turnover, the increasingly moderate turn of the Democratic Party, and the larger size of the caucus. But perhaps the most important factor is the diversification of the constituencies CBC members represent--a development largely brought on by redistricting in the early 1990s.
Before 1992 most members of the CBC came from districts with relatively unitary political interests: economically stressed inner cities with overwhelmingly black populations. Because the interests of the Cleveland district were similar to those of the Newark district, the pre-1992 CBC was unified not only in the belief in activist government but also in the particulars of what it should be activist for. The caucus could put forward a very black- and urban-centric political agenda. But now that it encompasses a new range of demographics, there is by definition less agreement about the particulars as well as an increased need to represent districts that are more diverse. If all politics is local, then the proliferation of different kinds of local within a caucus is bound to change its politics. More than ever before, black representatives are being pulled in different directions by a multiplicity of constituent interests.
There is, for instance, now a bloc of about 10 southerners who vote against the rest of the caucus on agricultural legislation. Some of them, including Clyburn and North Carolina's Eva Clayton, are even outspoken defenders of tobacco farmers--something that sets them apart from their colleagues who rail against the tobacco industry for questionable marketing strategies that target black neighborhoods. The black representatives from Florida and Texas are unique among CBC members in their support of the air and space industry. Bobby Scott, whose Virginia district includes parts of Newport News and Norfolk, is the leader of a 12-member pro-defense minority in the CBC. Jacksonville's Corrine Brown casts aside liberal orthodoxies when they conflict with her pro-military constituency. In her 1998 campaign, she told a constituent, "When it comes to military facilities and the safety of the United States ... we need to check our parties at the door."
The expansion of local interests within the CBC has similarly led to a change in the kind of committee assignments caucus members lobby for. Since 1992 black representatives have increasingly opted to serve on constituent committees that give them access to pork instead of the policy and prestige committees to which members of the CBC had heretofore tended to gravitate.
These interest-based divisions revealed themselves most clearly in the recent debate over the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, free trade legislation co-sponsored by Charles Rangel, the longtime congressman from Harlem. The issues were very similar to those surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle: What will free trade cost everyday Africans and Americans? Rangel and his supporters voted for the legislation because it provided new money for Africa and most African governments supported it. Maxine Waters voted against it because, she said, it would open Africa to exploitation by multinational corporations. The three-member Chicago black delegation voted against it in part because labor unions opposed it. (Jesse Jackson, Jr., proposed alternative legislation based on loan guarantees to African countries.) Seven southerners voted against it to protect textile workers in their districts. Sanford Bishop from Georgia made their case very simply during the floor debate. "Let's help workers in Africa," Bishop said. "But in so doing, let's not hurt workers in America." North Carolinians Mel Watt and Jesse Helms don't agree on much of anything, least of all their vision for the future of Africa, but they voted together in regional solidarity against a bill the CBC ended up supporting, 20-14.
A central element in the changing political dynamics of the CBC is the increasing importance of biracial politics and political coalitions. In his recent book Race, Redistricting, and Representation, University of Wisconsin Professor David T. Canon argues that contrary to the predictions of racial redistricting's critics--that it would engender "political apartheid," in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's words--redistricting has in fact spurred the growth of "a politics of commonality" distinct from "a politics of difference." The 1992 majorityminority districts were some of the most integrated districts in the country. And after most of them were scaled back in response to the Supreme Court's Shaw v. Reno decision outlawing racial redistricting, they became even more integrated than before. That means many new members must appeal to a significant white constituency, something that was never a consideration for most old members.
Not that whites didn't ever turn elections in majority black districts in the past. White voters in black districts have sometimes decided Democratic primaries (and thus, in effect, general elections) on the basis of which black candidate has the stronger biracial appeal. For example, although Georgia's fifth district (Atlanta) is 62 percent black, when it was created in 1986 John Lewis beat Julian Bond in the Democratic primary because he won some 80 percent of the white vote. The same thing happened in Houston in 1994, where Sheila Jackson Lee defeated Craig Washington in the primary by appealing to white and women voters, something Washington had conspicuously failed to do.
But redistricting, and even more the re-redistricting that took place in the middle 1990s, has amplified the effect of white voters on black candidates and thus has indirectly affected the character of the Congressional Black Caucus. Several southern CBC members have had their districts redrawn so they are no longer majority-minority. Almost all these representatives, with the possible exception of Cynthia McKinney (who is strong among women voters), have reached out to white voters in one way or another. And all of them, including McKinney, have won re-election.
There is considerable debate over whether these victories are evidence of a new white willingness to vote for black candidates or just the power of incumbency. But the real story seems to combine both of these factors. Majority-minority districts allowed black candidates to gain the toehold of incumbency, which has in turn had a small but discernible transformative effect on white voting patterns.
Sanford Bishop is perhaps the most dramatic example. Bishop, who had served as student body president of Morehouse College in the late 1960s, was elected from a majority-black district in rural Georgia in 1992. When his district was redrawn with a 60 percent white majority, Bishop looked to be one of re-redistricting's most likely victims. But he moved right on a number of issues (even joining the Blue Dogs, the conservative Democrat caucus). He lobbied hard for peanut subsidies, which both his white and black constituents needed, and was instrumental in ramming them through Congress. In November 1998 he was re-elected with support from many white peanut farmers who had never considered voting for a black candidate before. As a constituent told The New York Times, "I just wouldn't have thought a black man would know enough to do the job."
The case of Mel Watt is more complex. Although Bishop had conservative leanings from the outset, Watt is one of the most outspoken civil libertarians in Congress, which ordinarily wouldn't play well in his now 63 percent white district in North Carolina. He cast the only vote in the House against Megan's Law and is strongly opposed to school prayer. But Watt, who sits on the Banking and Financial Services Committee, has vital support from Charlotte banking interests. They contribute to his campaigns, and he usually--though by no means always--votes their way. So Watt is able to make principled votes on the ideological issues he cares about because he delivers to key constituents. The partnership between Watt and the banks might seem unnatural, but if you're a black congressman and you want to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties in a 63 percent white district in North Carolina, you had better have friends like the bankers. As University of Maryland Professor of African-American Studies Ronald Walters told me, it's often a question of "what they can and cannot get away with."
Biracial politics is even becoming more salient in districts where it is not an electoral necessity. James Clyburn's district is 62 percent black, and he could hold onto his seat without biracial support. (Bennie Thompson has a 63 percent black district in Mississippi and is re-elected with virtually no white support, which, because the Mississippi Delta is in many ways a vestige of the Old South, will be a long time in coming no matter what kind of politics he practices.) But Clyburn works toward what he sees as the common goals of his black and white constituents by focusing on economic development. Similarly, Jesse Jackson, Jr., according to Frank Watkins, understands history in terms of race but practices politics in terms of economics. That way, says Watkins, "it doesn't come off to white people like you're just fighting for black people." But Jackson and Clyburn are also national civil rights leaders. Jackson is taking the lead on studying the digital divide. As chairman of the CBC, Clyburn has spoken out on topics ranging from environmental justice and affirmative action to the rejection of Judge Ronnie White and racial profiling. Jackson and Clyburn's dual roles as powerful constituent representatives and civil rights spokesmen could be a new model for black representatives-- because most of them are finding out you can't have one without the other.
Are pragmatic politics and biracial politics euphemisms for the dilution of the CBC consensus? Some argue that an ideologically muted biracial politics will keep the CBC from leading on issues that affect African Americans. The opposite argument posits that by working more within the system and with a broader constituency the CBC will be more successful on the ground. It will be easier to tell how the caucus has really changed should the Democrats retake Congress. Since 1994 party members have been unified in their opposition to the Republican majority, but if they are able to win back Congress and set the agenda, divisions within the Democratic Caucus will become clearer.
Most CBC members are still among the most liberal in Congress. With the exception of Sanford Bishop, Harold Ford, and Bill Livingston of New Orleans, each is on the left of the House Democratic Caucus. But there is some question whether Black Caucus members will continue to drive the agenda from the left or integrate themselves more fully into the party apparatus. And left or not, there is also the question of how members can be most effective--as members of the Black Caucus or members of the Democratic Caucus. For instance, if Charles Rangel takes the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, will his first loyalties be with the CBC or the Democratic Party?
The CBC is far less tightly knit than it once was. Take John Lewis's probable candidacy for Democratic whip, should the Democrats regain control of the House this November. Given the Democrats' high hopes for taking back the House, candidates like Lewis have already started campaigning for the post among their colleagues. A few years ago, the CBC would have gone down the line for Lewis, as many of the caucus's senior members, like Michigan's John Conyers, now are. But now some members are pledging their support to other candidates. Lewis's fellow Georgian Cynthia McKinney, who says she would like to see a woman elected, has pledged her support to Nancy Pelosi, a white, liberal congresswoman from California. Albert Wynn supports his fellow Marylander Steny Hoyer, who is also white. "Bottom line is the caucus is not monolithic," Wynn said.
"I'm not suggesting they owe me," Lewis said recently, "but I did give a little blood on the bridge in Selma in 1965. I would hope and pray that they realize if it had not been for my own involvement to bring about the Voting Rights Act, many of them would not be in Congress today." Few would deny Lewis's claim. But for better or worse, the Congressional Black Caucus today is emblematic of a more integrated America. And wasn't that the point? ¤