Last week, no matter where you turned—you couldn’t ignore the Black politicians in the news.
Charlie Rangel’s hearing before the House ethics panel provided endless fodder for political commentators. On the first day, it was his pleading for more time to raise money for proper counsel and his storming out that grabbed headlines. The next time we saw him, the 21 term Congressman was attempting to save his political legacy by pointing out to his fellow Congressmen the difference between corrupt and ignorant. And while the distinction seemed of the utmost importance to Rangel, it mattered little to the New York Post, which, by the next morning, had rolled out its usual all caps and bold front page headline reading, “CROOK!”
On the other side of the political spectrum, newly elected Republican Allen West mouthed off about his issues with joining the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), telling reporters, “The most important thing is that there has to be a different perspective. There has to be a different voice. We cannot have this monolithic voice.” West, who is also weighing the possibility of joining the Tea Party Caucus, has gotten very little right in my eyes. The retired Army Lt. Colonel’s first move after winning office was to pick conservative radio host Joyce Kaufman as his Chief of Staff. Though he did retract his selection just a few days later, his pick of an anti-immigration shock jock told me everything I needed to know.
But as off-base as he is on most issues, West might be on to something with his criticism of the CBC. To be sure the CBC is an important institution. Founded in 1969, it incorporated the newly elected Black lawmakers into the post Civil Rights Act fold. It created a community within the unfamiliar halls of Capitol Hill, and inspired other minority groups to come to do the same. Over the years, the CBC has been an instrumental part of pushing for legislation benefitting educational and labor reform, drug policies, inner-city communities, and congressional appropriations.
However, for all the stands that CBC has taken for the African-American community and the American people over the years, it seems that the halls on the Hill have become a little too familiar. In building their political coalition, they have fortified the bonds of their personal ones as well. The group’s silence regarding the misconduct of one of their founding members was a missed opportunity for the group to distinguish themselves as more than a congressional clique. And while it would have taken a cold day in hell for the CBC to rebuke Charlie Rangel, their stand to remain firmly seated on the fence throughout the debacle is troubling.
In its own words, the CBC was formed to “promote the public welfare through legislation designed to meet the needs of millions of neglected citizens.” But in the face of incidents like this, it has served more as a coalition to protect its own members. And while Washington is filled with behavior far more disdainful than Rangel’s, and there are others equally willing to protect their own, the CBC should be held to a higher standard because of its own origins.
Much of what kept Blacks from serving as lawmakers was not just segregation in the South through the 1970s. The untraceable but insurmountable obstacle was the many Senators and Congressmen who viewed speaking out against discrimination as political risk not worth taking. It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said that quote we all learned in middle school:
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Maybe it says something about our progress when that quote has come full circle to apply to our own. But either way, it is no compliment. Whether for racism or inclusion, blind solidarity is a dangerous thing. The CBC should stand behind their own when the allegations against them are egregious, unprincipled, and untrue. While Maxine Walters has had less than admirable moments, the evidence against her was weak at best. The CBC’s support of her has proven justified with the ethics case against her being thrown out. However, that news will be outshined next week as Rangel is censured in another embarrassing procedure on the House floor.
West may take issue with the voice of the CBC, but, for most African-Americans, the bigger issue should be their appalling silence. Sure we have a Black president (whom, it still must be noted, the CBC did not initially support), but positive Black political leadership gets very little national spotlight outside of, well . . . let’s face it, Cory Booker. And while Newark’s own has had the benefit of documentaries, most of the Blacks getting face time for their politics are usually dirty-texting mayors, inner Don Imuses, or they’re screaming out with a bullhorn and fingerless gloves that, yes, the rent is too damn high.
The CBC has the opportunity to be the voice of reason in between these characters by exemplifying strong leadership and making tough stands. Because, so far, given the choice between speaking up and staying, the people we elected are choosing Washington over us.