WASHINGTON — Ten months after Democrats took over the Capitol and the first African-American president moved into the White House, black lawmakers are in control of some of the most powerful positions in Congress — and face new challenges to using their long-sought influence.
There have been some victories — guaranteeing that stimulus money reaches some of the poorest parts of the country, expanding hate crimes legislation and moving to close health care disparities.
But “in some ways, our strategies haven’t caught up with our own power,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, chief executive of the NAACP.
“The civil rights community is used to passing big omnibus legislative acts,” he said. “We’re not so accustomed to having the power to slice and dice that into 20 pieces and attach that to various other appropriations bills.”
For generations, civil rights were inseparable from black politicians. That era ended with President Barack Obama, who has declined to engage in traditional black advocacy.
So any new efforts to help blacks who remain disproportionately unemployed, incarcerated, unhealthy and undereducated will most likely come from the 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The goal is closing all of these gaps,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the caucus and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees budgetary spending. “When you look at all these huge systemic gaps, there’s still not equality and justice for all.”
But due to recent advances among blacks — Obama’s election chief among them — there is a new resistance toward efforts aimed at helping black people specifically, said University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry.
“We’re used to being supplicants at the table,” Berry said. “Now they have to be smart. If they want to do something about unemployment, they can target those who have the highest rates. If you target education, target the lowest achievement rates. Don’t say, ‘We’re doing this for black folks'; you say, ‘We want to target where the problems are.'”
That strategy has been taking shape for some time, said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who as majority whip is the third-ranking member of the House.
Clyburn cited an amendment in the economic recovery package that he worked on with Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to ensure that 10 percent of federal stimulus dollars are spent in areas where at least 20 percent of residents have lived in poverty for the last 30 years.
“If I were designing a quote-unquote affirmative action program today, that’s what I would be using, the 10-20-30 formula,” Clyburn said. “We are finding more and more sophisticated ways of doing this on a nonracial basis.”
But some still say the fractious black caucus — which famously split over endorsing Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries — should be doing much more to bring together leaders from the private sector, education and local government to tackle problems facing black America.
“The black power establishment altogether should be given a B-minus or a C-plus,” Berry said. “They need to pull together, join together and be smart about how they articulate what the goals and opportunities are.”
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said recently enacted legislation expanding hate crimes protection and changes he is pushing to mandatory minimum sentencing laws are evidence of “a whole new power syndrome on the national scene.”
He also said he planned to bring a bill through his committee calling for the government to study the issue of reparations to descendants of slaves. “This is not just a feel-good measure,” Conyers said. “This is very serious business.”
Obama opposes reparations and has said “the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”
The caucus also played a major role in pushing the House to formally rebuke Rep. Jim Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s health care address to Congress.
“We weren’t just going to let that go and not say something about it,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.
She said Clyburn’s position as majority whip was crucial to this and other caucus priorities: “We’re able to sort of project and amplify our voices because he’s in the leadership.”
Clarke said that in bills such as the stimulus package, health care reform and auto industry bailouts, caucus members affect “the chemistry of the legislation” by ensuring that provisions to help minorities are included.
For example, the House health care bill provides billions of dollars to address the substandard health care many minorities receive. It’s unclear whether the provisions will remain after negotiations to reconcile the Senate health care bills.
Berry, the Penn professor, said the caucus’ effectiveness should ultimately be judged by results on problems in poverty, education, unemployment and other areas.
“We’re going to find out how smart they are, how committed they are and whether they have a fix on what the people need,” she said.