If the CBC is to remain the voice of black America, it must find a way to incorporate these new leaders into its work and do a better job of hearing and addressing the concerns of young black Americans, including and especially Black Lives Matter protesters. This should not be difficult; the organization has successfully employed this strategy in the past. In the latter part of the 1970s into the late ’80s, the CBC helped orchestrate the Free South Africa Movement protests. The movement included sit-ins and student protests, and was even featured on popular television shows such as A Different World. The group combined these popular efforts with a successful legislative strategy, leading the passage of sanctions on South Africa and defeating President Reagan’s ensuing veto. This is the power and value of the caucus.
But political circumstances have changed. African Americans are still an electoral monolith, tending to vote in predictable ways that are similar to others in their demographic group. But they are also increasingly politically diverse. This is a function of expanding intra-racial inequality and a wider variety of lived experiences among blacks, including disparate health outcomes and susceptibility to violent crime. But the CBC can be resistant to the changing politics, lives, and preferences of black America. The caucus has high incumbency rates, and it’s part of an institution where seniority is a qualification all its own. It is also closely tied to party priorities—it has effectively become the most reliably Democratic entity in Congress.
This stifles debate about policy options. Studies show substantive and significant differences emerging between economic classes of blacks on issues like government spending on crime-reduction and anti-poverty programs. As a group, African Americans consistently rate education as a top concern, but have varying opinions on how to secure solid schooling for black children—whether through increased investments in the public-school system or more school-choice options for black parents, including private-school scholarships or homeschooling. The latter are programs favored by Republicans, like Senator Tim Scott and Representative Mia Love, but anathema to the Democratic policy platform. The CBC should be a venue for debate about these approaches. The caucus wants the best outcomes for black children, but it should champion good ideas regardless of which party favors a certain policy. If partisan allegiances undermine this flexibility, the CBC cannot effectively fulfill its mission. While individual members have responsibilities to their constituencies and their party, the CBC does not.
Shedding this veil of partisanship is critical because it will help the caucus improve its image as an honest broker for policy deliberations. Membership in the CBC is open to all black members of Congress. But of the seven black Republicans who have served in Congress since the CBC’s creation, only three have joined. Only one of the three currently serving black Republicans are members. And though the CBC PAC aspires to “increase the number of African Americans in the U.S. Congress,” if its expenditures are any indication, this only holds true for black Democratic candidates and not Republicans like Will Hurd, the 2014 congressional candidate Erika Harold, or even Representative Love, who is a current CBC member.