The 13th Annual Legislative Weekend of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by the 21 black members of the House of Representatives, at first glance lived up to its billing as a major black political gathering that could make a difference for black America. Caucus members are gaining seniority in Congress and their ranks include the deputy whip of the House. There were serious strategy discussions about a black presidential candidacy, and dozens of black elected officials and leaders attended.
But the truth is that the caucus may be at a critical stage, with its relevance as a voice for all black America being questioned by a noted historian. The weekend event is not a major political gathering if its importance is measured by how relevant it is to the majority of black Americans. The significance of the weekend still seems to be more about the stylish tastes of the participants than about true political change.
The weekend brought together thousands of middle-income blacks from across the country to socialize, establish contacts and exchange information. Many people attended workshops to discuss topics ranging from presidential politics to technology to international affairs, in part to combat criticism that the annual weekend has been one big party.
Certainly some benefits result from this coming together. But the participants spend millions of dollars--on airlines, hotels and restaurants--to focus more on analyzing problems than effecting solutions. Why not spend similar money and energy bringing about solutions and change?
Black America is staggering under a 20 percent jobless figure, with 50 percent of its youth unemployed. The median income of families slipped to 56 percent of what white families made last year.
It is difficult to say blacks will spend so much money to come to Washington to demand that somebody else solve problems of joblessness and hungry children. Without letting the government off the hook, blacks could better use their own resources to help solve some of their economic problems.
But better use of caucus resources is only one problem. Another kind of dilemma exists within the caucus itself. Dr. Marguerite Ross Barnett of Columbia University traced the history of the caucus and the challenges that face it in a new book, "The New Black Politics." She suggests that the caucus faces eventual obsolescence in its broader efforts on behalf of blacks unless it can address itself to the "structural barriers" that blacks face in the economic system that have been "uniquely immune" to legislation. By "structural barriers" Barnett means the disproportionate concentration of blacks on the bottom scale in the labor market, which is poorly unionized, unstable and lacks opportunities for upward mobility.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have the double task of representing their individual constituencies and representing blacks as a whole. To remain relevant would require the caucus to understand and directly attack "the structural conditions of black subordination," Barnett says.
The mixed emotions engendered by the weekend symbolize the dilemma of the caucus itself. Barnett summarizes what the caucus needs to explore in a creative way.
"In a broader sense, the false consciousness, contradictions, false starts and oscillations associated with caucus history are part of the general black political dilemma in the United States. It is this dilemma that must be explored as part of an emerging black political theory."
Perhaps the time has come when the single event should become two: one for establishing contacts and socializing and a second event where workshops, panels of experts and issue-oriented sessions are devoted to the development of a national policy and where participants can depart with solutions to deal with the worsening problems of black Americans.