Thumb through the latest issue of the CEA Congressional Ledger, which annually rates members of Congress in terms of their support of black and Hispanic interests, and one fact sticks out: the West Virginia congressional delegation leads the pack.
True, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (and, less consistently, members of the Hispanic Caucus) are likely to show "right" votes on the 20 pieces of legislation the Washington- based Congressional Education Associates has chosen as its litmus test on black and Hispanic issues. But the most consistent overall record has been chalked up not by those states with the largest nonwhite populations but by West Virginia, whose blackest congressional district is only 6 percent black and which has no district that is more than 1 percent Hispanic.
On the 20 key issues (including youth employment, job development, child-support enforcement, school desegregation assistance and health and nutrition programs), one West Virginia congressman cast one "wrong" vote, leaving him with a score of "only" 95 percent. The other three members of the House delegation scored perfect 100s.
Does that mean that West Virginia is unusually liberal in its politics? That its congressional delegation is uncommonly pro-black and pro-Hispanic?
Not really, says CEA president Gordon Alexander. "It only shows that members tend to score high if the socioeconomics of their constituencies approximate those of the heavily minority districts."
Well, sometimes. Congressmen from some of the Deep South states, whose constituencies are heavily minority and low-income, nevertheless have recorded rankings as low as 10 or 15 percent on the key votes.
Why? Alexander isn't sure, but I suspect the explanation might run along these lines: in those districts where the socioeconomic issues are "pure" -- that is, economically struggling areas with small minority populations -- the legislators seem prepared to vote the economic interests of their constituents, as in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and other economically depressed areas. But in districts with comparable economics but large minority populations, the legislators seem more likely to vote the political interests of their white constituents. Where politics are polarized along color lines, that may mean voting against the black or Hispanic agenda, even at the sacrifice of white economic interests.
And where does it lead? Again, Alexander isn't sure. "Since this is the year of the 'rainbow,' it may lead us to a more thoughtful analysis of how members vote not only as it relates to blacks and Hispanics, but how it relates to people who are suffering the same economic conditions. It may remind us to reach out and recognize those members who support our interests, even if they aren't well-known liberals. It may lead us to consider that the things we call the 'black agenda' aren't racial at all but economically based, and that, in turn, may lead us to a different political approach based on common interests rather than racial polarization. We may be talking about the need for more enlightened, aggressive leadership on both sides."
Perhaps. But there is a joker in the deck. White political leaders who back legislation aimed at helping their economically distressed white constituents are seen as supporting an economic agenda. Black political leaders who support the same legislation are seen as backing a black agenda -- a perception that can lead to racial polarization and defeat of the legislation.
Even Alexander, a former Senate aide who makes his living teaching local leaders how to negotiate the legislative system, isn't sure how to handle that dilemma.