Can the political power that blacks are gaining be translated into economic power?
At first glance, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's legislative weekend, which ended here yesterday, seemed a celebration of growing black clout. The political statistics spoke for themselves: In the 14 years that the caucus weekend has been held here, the number of black elected officials has grown from 1,469 to 5,700, as of January 1984.
The 21 members of the caucus are gaining greater stature and more prestigious committee posts on the Hill. Jesse L. Jackson was hailed for his candidacy for the presidency of the United States and his voter registration efforts.
But the legislative weekend was an important step in the direction of economic parity as well.
It was noted that several members of the caucus have prominent economics-oriented posts. For example, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) heads the subcommittee on banking and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) chairs a committee on small business.
Still, if you ask any of the thousands of people who attended last weekend's event whether black political power could translate into economic equity, most would say that so far it has not happened.
While thousands of blacks have been elected to public office, many of those who put them there are impatient with the slow pace of improvement in their own lives.
Getting economic results through political power takes longer. Many early black elected officials, for example, wanted desperately to deliver for their deprived communities but lacked the background and experience to achieve those economic gains.
"You did not find blacks sitting on revenue and banking committees," said Maxine Waters, a California state assemblywoman. "Finances and economics were not discussed in their families. Black schools were deficient in talking about economics. Many legislators did not even own their own homes, let alone talking about some of the more complicated aspects of economics. Banks and insurance companies got their votes without having to discuss whether the bank should locate branches in their communities or discussing redlining. Now that is beginning to change. Black legislators are beginning to leverage their votes to make positive changes in the institutions that control the economy."
Another stumbling block is that blacks have just begun to talk about economic development in the black community in the past four or five years. Moreover, the first real crop of black business majors has emerged only in the past five or 10 years. And many blacks are still debating the fundamental issue of what should be the correct balance between self-help and government support.
Black legislators are always in the minority, and many find it difficult to deliver on their constituents' needs. "The fact that we don't have more jobs created is not that minorities don't advocate it but that the majority doesn't care," said Waters. "We just have to be more creative to deliver any economic gains for our communities."
Nationally, although political power has not always worked in conjunction with economic power for blacks, many direct gains can be noted. Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.) fought long and hard alongside the late senator Hubert H. Humphrey for a full-employment bill. Mitchell has been a strong resource for black businessmen and as a response to some of their problems helped develop a legal defense fund using pro bono lawyers. This fund financed a class action suit against the state of Illinois, which had not met its congressionally mandated goal of hiring 10 percent minority road builders. As a result of that suit, the black Illinois representatives are getting roads built in their districts and 10 percent of the work force is minority.
Fauntroy has used his committee assignment to keep a steady spotlight on the economy's special impact on minorities around the country.
"We need to constantly talk about economic parity," said Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.). "Blacks have been unable to seize an economic issue and work it to the end as we did with goals and quotas some time ago. We don't have minorities talking about economic parity. I think that has to be the focus of our next [legislative weekend] -- it will be our 15th."