The issues of Black folks only take center stage a few times a year in any substantive and collective way: the annual NAACP convention, the National Action Network convention, maybe a fraternity or sorority event, (R.I.P. to Tavis’ “State of Black America”)…Alas, for the most part, our needs as a collective don’t merit a lot of large scale convenings. This is why the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference (CBC ALC) is so important. It’s not just a gathering of African Americans meeting to discuss and pontificate about the most pressing policy issues of the day, but one that includes actual members of Congress there who are in a position to DO something about these ideas once the parties are over and the podiums have been put away. True to form, the 2014 ALC was an uneven affair, featuring highs and lows that mirror the state of Blacks in this country.
If you’ve never been to CBC weekend before, I strongly encourage you to go at least once. Yes, most people have heard the stories that it’s just Policy Freaknik for folks with degrees, but that just depends on what track you’re following when you attend. There is plenty of time for late night party hopping, name dropping and having three names to use a friend’s RSVP (or so I’ve heard) but there is plenty of substantive work being done as well. On the policy side, each member of the Congressional Black Caucus sets up at least one panel to discuss issues that are important to them or their district, and these panels can range from incredibly helpful and informative to occasionally wasteful or downright embarrassing.
On the informative side, there was a town hall on President Obama’s highly-debated My Brother’s Keeper initiative, hosted by Representatives Steven Horsford, Hakeem Jeffries and Frederica S. Wilson which featured a rousing speech by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The program also featured a whole slew of panelists discussing their work on MBK since the program launched this past February. On the final day of the convention, there was a panel on “Sex, Politics and Black Women” sponsored by Planned Parenthood that examined the impact of the Hobby Lobby ruling in our communities. Polls show that 86% of African American women consider birth control to be an economic issue as much as a moral issue, and those are the kinds of facts that need to play a role in Congressional decision making. There were also fantastic panels on the state of asylum seekers from Africa and the Caribbean (since most media would have you believe the only asylum seekers are from South of the Border), various federal and state programs to help convicts re-enter society and how African Americans can take a foothold in the housing market again after the mortgage crisis of the mid-2000’s.
The My Brother’s Keeper panel also featured the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, who were invited to speak as a group and were asked to share personal stories with the audience about each of their sons before they died. Several attendees I spoke to found this to be a bit morbid, and worried that the lives of these young men are being turned into tragedy porn. To be fair, there wasn’t complete unity on the stage regarding these young men either; when Michael Brown, Sr. stated that he was still having trouble coming to terms with his son being gone, “but that now he was in a better place.” Brown’s mother quickly interjected. “He’s NOT in a better place, a better place would be here!”
Panelists disagreeing with each other, or moderators is par for the course at the CBC convention; sometimes the disagreements are substantive, sometimes they aren’t. At the “Big Data and Financial Literacy” panel, an audience member kept trying to convince moderator Touré that you could avoid having your internet searches tracked by using two laptops–which make about as much sense as fooling your landlord by putting on a rubber nose and mustache. However, the most volatile of panels was certainly the “Hip-Hop & Politics” panel hosted by Congressman Andre’ Carson and moderated by Angela Rye of Impact Strategies. This is usually one of the most well attended and revered panels at the conference. Highlights this year included Rakim, Mc Lyte, Touré, Freeway Rick Ross and Reverend Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus. But things didn’t go that smoothly this year, after Yearwood pointed out that the CBC was sponsored by corporations that were much more hostile to the Black community than any gangster rappers: “If you turn to page two of the Congressional Black Caucus program you will see Exxon Mobil, if you turn to page four you’ll see Chevron.” Rye got angry and interrupted Yearwood in the middle of his comments, telling him that sponsors are important and that his mike “is about to get cut off, child. I’m here to warn you” and cautioning him to “Tread lightly” because the panel was being livestreamed.
This didn’t go over very well with the panel or the audience, who booed and hissed. One of the panelists, rapper Freeway Rick Ross, got up and left, in protest. Between this and a Dream Defenders panel being canceled because of a scheduling error, there were obviously some real cleavages between the activist community and some of the organizers of the CBC on full display.
However, a convention that kicked off with Attorney General Eric Holder (Obama’s “anger translator“) announcing his retirement and ends with President Obama promising to never wear that tan suit again and pledging to fight discrimination in police arrests and sentencing felt like more of a success than a failure. The only question is, how much of what was discussed at Congressional Black Caucus Weekend will we actually see turned into law or substantive policy on the state level? With up to 47 African American members of Congress next year after midterm elections, will they wield enough clout and legislative discipline to get anything through a hostile Congress? For that answer, we turn to President Obama and his closing comments at the Phoenix Dinner on Saturday night:
“We need more than prayer…We need to VOTE! It may not relieve me of my gray hairs, but it’ll help me pass some bills.”
Dr. Jason Johnson is a Professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and a frequent analyst on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera and Fox Business News