A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Congressional Black Caucus for Blacks Only?


Q: Is the Congressional Black Caucus racially exclusive?

A: Yes. It has never had a white member in its 36-year history. However, its stated mission is to work for "America’s neglected citizens," whatever their color.

FULL QUESTION

What exactly is the Congressional Black Caucus? Is it a racially-exclusive group, and, if so, how can such a group exist within Congress?

FULL ANSWER

The CBC has always been an all-black organization. It was founded in 1971 with 13 members. It is currently made up of 42 House members and one senator, Barack Obama of Illinois. All are African American, and all are Democrats.

But while the group’s membership is racially exclusive, its stated goals are not. The group’s stated mission is to "empower America’s neglected citizens – including but not limited to Americans of color" and "to ensure, insofar as possible, that everyone in the United States has an opportunity to live out the American Dream."

MISSION

Since 1971, the Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (at times referred to herein as the “CBC” or “Caucus”) have joined together to strengthen their efforts to empower America’s neglected citizens – including but not limited to Americans of color – by more effectively addressing our legislative concerns. The Congressional Black Caucus is committed to utilizing the full Constitutional power, statutory authority, and financial resources of the Government of the United States of America to ensure, insofar as possible, that everyone in the United States has an opportunity to live out the American Dream.

The legislative agenda of universal empowerment that the Members of the Caucus shall collectively pursue shall include, but are not limited to: the creation of universal access to a world-class education from birth through post secondary level; the creation of universal access to quality, affordable health care and the elimination of racially based health disparities; the creation of universal access to modern technology, capital, and full, fairly compensated employment; the creation and or expansion of US foreign policy initiatives that will contribute to the survival, health, education, and general welfare of all peoples of the world in a manner consistent with universal human dignity, tolerance, and respect, and such other legislative action as a majority of the entire CBC membership from time to time may support.

Source: CBC "Press Kit"

The organization’s no-whites policy was tested most recently last year by a newly elected House member, Stephen I. Cohen of Tennessee, a white man who represents a 60 percent black district previously held by Harold Ford Jr. During Cohen’s 2006 campaign he was quoted as saying that if elected he would try to become "the first white member" of the Congressional Black Caucus. But shortly after being sworn in the following January, Cohen told another reporter that he dropped his bid after hearing from several current and former caucus members that whites need not apply.

"I think they’re real happy I’m not going to join," said Cohen, according to Josephine Hearn, who covers the House for Politico.com. "It’s their caucus and they do things their way. You don’t force your way in. You need to be invited."

Hearn quoted caucus member William Lacy Clay of Missouri, son of one of the CBC’s founders, as confirming that. "Mr. Cohen asked for admission, and he got his answer. … It’s time to move on," she quoted Clay as saying. "It’s an unwritten rule. It’s understood. It’s clear."

As for how such an exclusive organization can exist within the House, there are many caucuses set up to represent specific groups or causes. They are properly called Congressional Member Organizations, and the list includes dozens with very specific names.

The House’s rules governing such organizations allow House members to form them (and to include Senators) and to allocate some of their normal staff people and office funds to support them. But the groups may have no office space of their own, and they can’t employ anybody directly, accept donations from outsiders, use the Franking privilege to send mail postage-free or have "separate corporate or legal identity."

The CBC should not be confused with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a separate organization set up in 1976. It has different officers and directors and operates from its own headquarters building not far from the Capitol. The foundation describes itself as "the premier organization that creates, identifies, analyzes and disseminates policy-oriented information critical to advancing African Americans and people of African descent towards equity in economics, health and education." It supports itself through donations. Its 2006 annual report said it had income of over $10 million, and it listed AstraZeneca as its largest sponsor, at over $500,000. Sponsors giving $250,000 or more were Anheuser-Busch Cos., Dell Inc., Fannie Mae Corp., State Farm Insurance Cos., The Coca-Cola Co., UnitedHealth Group and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

–Brooks Jackson 

Sources

Hearn, Josephine. "Black Caucus: Whites Not Allowed." Politico.com, 26 Jan. 2007.

Martin, Jonathan. "In Tennessee, testing the limits of liberalism, Will Steve Cohen become the Congressional Black Caucus’ token Jew?" The New Republic, reprinted by Jewish World Review, 21 Sept. 2006.