What the Congressional Black Caucus Lost When It Won Power

Nina Turner.
The CBC has endorsed Nina Turner’s opponent in her primary race for a congressional seat in Ohio. Photo: Phil Long/AP/Shutterstock

It was fall 1986, and the Congressional Black Caucus was riding high. The then-15-year-old organization and self-styled “conscience of Congress” had spent its early years at the margins of influence, antagonizing leaders of both major parties and feeling very much like the outsider clamoring to be heard.

President Nixon famously refused to meet with the caucus when it first formed in 1971. Before the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the caucus’s members issued a list of demands, titled “The Black Bill of Rights” — influenced by the Black Power and Pan-Africanist politics that were in vogue at the time — and threatened to withhold their support from the party nominee if the Democrats didn’t adopt it. Among the demands were “guaranteed health delivery systems” styled after neighborhood health clinics, and the withdrawal of U.S. aid from Portugal, which was at war with Black freedom fighters in its colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

By 1986, the CBC was a major player on Capitol Hill. When the organization held its annual conference that October, eight of the 22 standing committees in the House of Representatives were headed by its members, and an estimated 15,000 people attended the event, according to the New York Times. The mood was celebratory. The caucus had just led a successful effort to override President Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa.

“We made a statement to [South African president] P.W. Botha and to the world,” said Representative Mickey Leland at the time. “But we realize that this sanctions bill is not a cure-all for the problems faced by Black South Africans.”

Nor was the CBC a sustainable remedy to what ailed Black Americans. With institutional acceptance came stasis. “[Seniority], repeated election cycles, and [the lack of] a robust movement as a source of accountability and direction” led members to govern more “like typical politicians,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies at Princeton.

As the Reagan era neared its close, the group that had long presented itself as an agitator for the cause of everyday Black people around the world was starting to resemble something more recognizable: a professional organization dedicated to protecting Democratic incumbents, including white ones against Black challengers, and sustaining career advancement for its own members.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the CBC is one of the pillars of the Democratic Establishment, a fundraising juggernaut with deep ties to corporate entities like Walmart and Altria (formerly Philip Morris, the biggest tobacco company in America) and a regular champion of party leaders, rather than a thorn in their side. Its individual members are by no means ideologically monolithic, though none of them are Republicans. Several of the newer ones — Ayanna Pressley, Jamal Bowman, Cori Bush — primaried CBC-backed incumbents. And contrary to popular narratives, there are enough left-leaning older members and right-leaning younger ones that internal rifts don’t map neatly onto generational or partisan divides.

But in the absence of such uniformity, the trends that have moved the CBC from the margins of influence to its center help explain its willingness to ignore its own stated principles, especially when it comes to elections.

On August 3, Nina Turner and Shontel Brown will compete in the Democratic primary for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District seat, which was vacated by Marcia Fudge when she became President Biden’s Housing and Urban Development secretary. The CBC has endorsed Brown, the Cuyahoga County Democratic chair, despite its policy of “[staying] out of it” when more than one Black candidate is vying for an empty position. Turner, Brown’s leading competitor, is a former Cleveland city councilmember and Ohio state senator who became a surrogate for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and the co-chair of his presidential campaign in 2020.

More revealingly, Turner is a figure who’s often trumpeted her disdain for the party Establishment and CBC friends and allies. This is a matter of both fact and perception. “We don’t need anybody fighting with Biden there,” one prospective Brown supporter told the Times.

Accruing power usually requires buy-in from people who think they’ll benefit from it. One of the easiest ways to secure that investment is by advertising how it will pay off. For all the emphasis the CBC puts on its principles — like getting more Black people elected to Congress, advancing Black interests, and avoiding intervention when multiple Black candidates are on the ballot — it typically plays by a more transactional rule: Be our friend, and we’ll be yours.

This applies to incumbents and aspirants alike. Old allies of the caucus, like Michael Capuano and Elliot Engel, both of whom are white, secured endorsements from the CBC or its leaders in recent primaries not because they were objectively more invested in “the needs and interests of our communities,” or because they had better ideas than the Black challengers who took them on. It was because their endorsers wanted to reward them for their allyship, while also reaffirming that if you want power and influence on their terms, paying dues pays off.

This may be an effective way to sustain institutional power. But it’s not a proxy for how urgently a candidate can meet the needs of Black people, which are dire, and also occludes debate that might determine that.

Nina Turner is to the left of Shontel Brown. The divergences are sometimes minor, broadly speaking, and often procedural, but they’re there — for example, Turner’s support for “Medicare for All” versus Brown’s for a public option tacked onto the Affordable Care Act, as a step toward a similar single-payer system. These divides are less rigid than they may look. Turner is a self-styled antithesis to “corporate Democrats.” She’s also broken her promise to refuse corporate PAC or lobbyist contributions, recently accepting money from heads at a lobbying firm and its offshoot that she co-founded, according to the Daily Beast.

But the more likely determinative difference is that where Brown is a party leader and chummy with its Establishment, Turner is viewed as one of its antagonists. “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing,’” Turner said last year of the choice between voting for Biden and voting for Trump. “It’s still shit.” By no coincidence, James Clyburn — one of the CBC’s most venerated members and a close friend of Biden’s, whose presidential campaign he is credited with salvaging — is flying to Ohio this weekend to personally campaign against her.

These are problems the original CBC’s members probably wish they could’ve had. An abundance of Black talent running for office and a plum spot in the Democratic pecking order would’ve gone a long way toward fixing a lot of their problems. But it’s hard not to imagine them looking at today’s landscape and wondering at how little Black Americans had advanced by so many key metrics, despite a dramatic increase in their own power. Or how, at a time when new blood and new ideas seem like they should be at a premium, there was so much investment in keeping things as they are.

What the Congressional Black Caucus Lost When It Won Power