The debate set up an easy dichotomy: Older, more moderate members of the CBC had diverged from the younger, progressive flank. The moderates chased incremental change; the progressives wanted radical action. The split in the caucus is paralleled in the country writ large: Just 18 percent of Baby Boomers, regardless of party, support calls to defund the police, while 38 percent of Millennials and 54 percent of Gen Zers do, according to a June Politico/Morning Consult poll.
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Yet the disagreement obscured the fact that most CBC members were saying similar things. “We should take a lot of emergency issues out of policing,” Clyburn said. In an interview with Time, Pressley sang a similar tune. “Why are we deploying the police when there is an individual who’s battling mental illness? We should be deploying a mental-health clinician.” Although 50 percent of Black people supported the idea of defunding the police in the Politico poll, that number jumped to 61 percent when the question was whether or not they support redirecting funds from police to schools or other community programs. As my colleague Annie Lowrey noted, the two ideas are often one and the same.
The younger group has, however, been adding to its ranks. Last month, Jamaal Bowman, a Black public-school principal, won his primary against longtime New York Representative Eliot Engel. Bowman campaigned on progressive causes such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All—and echoed calls to defund the police. Prominent CBC members—Clyburn, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Representative Maxine Waters, and others—had endorsed Engel, the incumbent.
Caucus leaders’ endorsements were reminiscent of their decision to endorse Michael Capuano, another white incumbent, over Pressley in 2018. “I wouldn’t expect them to endorse me because I’m Black … I would expect them to endorse me because I’m the more viable candidate,” Bowman told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere in June. “Unfortunately, the way the system works now is: They’ve known Congressman Engel for decades. They have a relationship with him. They work with him, so they chose to endorse him.”
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But not all of the older members of the CBC can be accurately portrayed as moderates, even compared with Bowman or Omar. “There’s been a very reductive, binary narrative that paints the CBC as this monolith of moderate black voices in Congress and then progressives as outsiders,” Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told me. That has not been true for at least as long as Representative Barbara Lee—one of the most progressive members of Congress—has been in office, he said.
The entire caucus, young and old, has long championed systemic reforms in education, health care, housing, and policing. Each year, the caucus submits an alternative budget that aims to address racial disparities. “But for 22 years,” Representative Gregory Meeks told me, “that budget has basically been ignored and not taken seriously.” The current awakening among white liberals, he suggested, will change that calculation. A new Gallup poll found that roughly two-thirds of Americans support the recent protests against racial injustice—and 53 percent believe the demonstrations will increase public support for equality.