On Wednesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) made history when the House Democratic Caucus elected him as the first Black lawmaker to lead a party caucus within the U.S. Congress. As the 52-year-old takes his place in leadership with a slate of younger lawmakers, Jeffries’s new position not only reflects an important generational shift within Democratic House leadership — but also a key moment in Black U.S. politics.
For Black lawmakers, full incorporation into Congress has not been automatic. Minority political incorporation occurs when minority elected officials belong to the dominant policymaking group.
For much of congressional history, Black lawmakers were pushed to the outskirts of influence, even within their own parties. But beginning in 1971, they have worked concertedly to establish themselves as a more powerful force by establishing the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Since that time — as more Black Americans won congressional seats, members Barack Obama and Kamala D. Harris were elected as president and vice president of the United States, and caucus members gained seniority — they have become more influential, both within the Democratic Party and Congress.
Jeffries’s election as the next leader of the Democratic Party signifies the next step in Black political incorporation. Here are four things to know about what Jeffries’s rise to party leader might mean for the future of Black politics.
A Black House leader could prompt more Black Americans to become politically engaged
Black political incorporation inspires Black Americans to become more politically engaged and involved, research finds. When Black people see someone like themselves in elected office, they are more likely to feel that they have a say in what government does, and are more likely to vote and to donate to political campaigns. Social scientists Lawrence Bobo and Franklin Gilliam called these effects of seeing your minority group represented in government “political empowerment.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Black people believe electing more Black officials helps combat racial inequality. Seeing Jeffries elected House Democratic leader may improve how African Americans perceive their relationship with government.
Black elected officials tend to work on issues that matter to Black communities
As party leader, Jeffries may well use his position to advocate for Black lawmakers and citizens alike.
That’s certainly true for Black legislators in general. Studies find that, compared with non-Black legislators, Black legislators focus more on issues important to Black communities, including sponsoring more bills, giving more floor speeches, and working behind the scenes in committees on such issues more often.
For instance, in 2009, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was frustrated by a lack of policy aimed at helping African American communities disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis. So Waters, a subcommittee chair, led the 10 Black members of the Financial Services committee to boycott an important vote for the bailout. Ultimately, they were able to get an additional $4 billion of TARP funds added to the bill. Nearly 10 years later, Rep. Waters became the first woman and first African American to chair the Financial Services committee, where she continued to advocate for Black community interests.
What’s more, Black legislators are also more likely to use their own positions to elevate other Black lawmakers into positions of power — further boosting the community’s interests.
Black legislators aren’t all equally dedicated to advancing Black community interests
Of course, not all Black legislators are the same. Sometimes those variations are individual or by party affiliation. But studies also find generational and gender differences among Black lawmakers. Political scientists Katherine Tate, Andra Gillespie and Nadia Brown find that older Black House legislators and women Black legislators, like Waters, tend to be more liberal than their younger and Black male counterparts.
This is in part because, while older Black legislators often come from the civil rights generation, younger Black leaders are more likely to embrace a deracialized approach to politics. Some scholars contend former president Obama soft-pedaled racial matters to keep from alienating racially conservative White Democratic voters.
Jeffries may similarly keep controversial racial issues at arm’s length. To examine this, we used NOMINATE scores to determine lawmakers’ ideologies on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative). These scores are calculated based on representatives’ legislative voting records in a particular two-year congressional session. Jeffries’s NOMINATE score for the 117th Congress was -.488, making him more liberal than 85 percent of Democrats in the House. But 84-year-old Waters at -.656 and 76-year-old Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) at -.681 were considerably more liberal than Jeffries, and further left than 98 and 99 percent of House Democrats.
While more moderate than some Black legislators, Jeffries is a member of the Progressive Caucus. He has distinguished himself from what he has called the “extreme left” and publicly butted heads with a staffer for the well-known progressive leader Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
As Black legislators gain power, they become more moderate
Stepping into leadership can moderate politicians’ positions. Other Black members of Congress who have run for leadership positions within the Democratic Party also have more moderate NOMINATE scores. For instance, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who is also seeking a party leadership post, has a NOMINATE score of -.375, making him more liberal than 45 percent of House Democrats. And Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, currently the third-highest-ranking House Democrat, is more moderate than Jeffries, with a NOMINATE score of -.464.
Katherine Tate has argued that minority incorporation has changed the CBC, so that today it’s an organization less focused on rebellion and more accommodating of the Democratic Party’s interests — even as it has changed the Democratic Party, making it more likely to embrace Black concerns.
And while minority Black legislators in leadership can do more to advocate for Black Americans, it also moderates their positions and the policies they advocate for. Jeffries belongs to the post-civil-rights-era of Black politicians who may hesitate to put racism and racial inequality at the top of their agendas.
Even so, Jeffries is likely to help further liberalize the Democratic Party — while energizing African Americans, pulling more of them into active involvement with U.S. democracy.
Jennifer R. Garcia (@jgarciaforrest) is an assistant professor of politics at Oberlin College.
Katherine Tate is a professor of politics at Brown University and the author of several books on Black representation in Congress, including “Black Faces in the Mirror” (Princeton University Press, 2004), “Concordance” (University of Michigan Press, 2020) and “What’s Going On” (Georgetown University Press, 2010).