Freedom Rider: Let the Black Caucus Be Black

Black people suffer because they have no real representation in Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus takes its orders from Nancy Pelosi, who serves corporations, not people.

Let Black Democrats Be Black!” was written by Glen Ford in the November 1, 2006, issue of Black Agenda Report. The title is evergreen and could be used again as the 117th Congress was sworn into office this week. The same issues of corporate control, austerity policies, imperialism, and Democratic Party corruption prevail and make these issues salient year after year.

Ford’s piece appeared as the Democrats were poised to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994. Black people were supposed to be particularly happy because veteran Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members like Charles Rangel and John Conyers were slated to chair House committees. But just as in 2006, Nancy Pelosi is still the Speaker of the House and her continued presence in the position is proof that any initiatives considered remotely leftish will be dead on arrival unless members who call themselves progressive put up a fight.

This year the excitement is directed at newcomers like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush. Both defeated long time Democrat incumbents in primaries by positioning themselves as progressives. Bush defeated CBC member Lacy Clay in the Missouri district that includes the city of Ferguson. She ran on a platform of ending police killings in the place where Michael Brown’s death in 2014 was the spark for an ongoing movement. Bush and Bowman both call for significant cuts to the military budget, Medicare for All, and defunding the police. They ran on progressive issues but the question is whether they will take principled stances or go along to get along like so many of their colleagues.

The recent #ForcetheVote campaign called on members to withhold support for Speaker Nancy Pelosi unless she committed herself to bringing Medicare for All to a vote. Bowman and Bush got the message that the movement was gaining traction and said they were not committed to supporting Pelosi. Yet on the day when they and others could have proven their progressive credentials, they voted for the woman who has been keeping CBC members in line for years. Despite much debate about the #ForcetheVote campaign, only five Democrats declined to vote for Pelosi. Every CBC member, every progressive caucus member, and the group known as “the squad” all supported her.

Of course, no one was running against Pelosi and that is proof that Congress members who claim to be progressive aren’t at all serious. The hold of the corporate party on their members is like a vice grip. They get the goodies if they stay in good stead with their leadership. They get the committees they want; they get good press for remaining “centrist” but unfortunately they don’t get enough push back from voters, who are convinced they have no choice but to go along with the claim that the system offers them no alternative to rich people and corporations calling the shots in a party that allegedly represents the peoples’ interests.

Just as in 2006, Nancy Pelosi is in her position because she is the party rainmaker. It is true that she raises millions of dollars in campaign funds, but that isn’t hard for a wealthy person to do. She and her husband have a net worth of more than $100 million, which is why she became the House leader in the first place.

Will the newest members of the CBC be like those who served before them? Once known as the “conscience of the Congress” they long ago succumbed when monied interests began targeting them. The CBC now live under the control of Pelosi and political action committee dollars. Some don’t mind going along for the ride while others fear that defying party dictates will mean that they face a well-funded challenger.

The ultimate losers are black people because they have no real representation in Congress, state houses or city halls. If their votes counted for anything the minimum wage would be higher, austerity would come to an end, police would fear committing extra judicial murder, and they would have Medicare for All. Instead, they live in fear of the Republicans, the white peoples’ party, and accept that keeping them out of office is the highest political expectation they may have.

Electoral politics cannot be the basis for political change. The people cannot, must not, rely on politicians to get what they want. We have seen enough so-called progressives fall by the wayside. The political circus will come to an end only with sustained popular pressure that comes from mass action. Only then will black politicians truly act on behalf of their constituents.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well at patreon.com/margaretkimberley and she regularly posts on Twitter @freedomrideblog. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.

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