Minority Group Leadership in Congress
A Congress Project Seminar
How has minority group leadership in Congress changed? And what holds for the future in minority group congressional leadership? These were the central questions addressed at this January 31 Congress Project Seminar, “Minority Group Leadership in Congress.” The panelists, including a professor, a journalist, and two former representatives, all agreed that the needs of minorities are better met through collaboration on unified and nonpartisan terms.
African-American Congressional Leadership
Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, began the discussion by focusing on Blacks and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Author of Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in U.S. Congress (1993), Swain amended her book with a seminar-prepared text on “The Congressional Black Caucus in the Republican Era.” She regarded the CBC as ineffectual because of its “minority within a minority” status. She noted that it remains focused on staunchly liberal politics and traditional civil rights legislation within a Republican-controlled Congress. To be effective, Swain said that representatives should offer new plans and seize race- and party-blind issues.
“I think, given the current context … it makes sense for all the caucuses to frame their interests in terms of American interests and not in terms of specific group, racial, or ethic interests,” stated Swain.
Swain observed that, with redistricting, Republicans have changed the political landscape. Republicans and Black Democrats teamed up in the early 1990s to create majority-Black districts. This allowed for more “descriptive” representation, but ensured that Republicans would be elected in other districts.
“[In 1994] you had more Black faces, more brown faces, but you had less power because these people were submerged in a Republican-run institution,” stated Swain. She believes that Blacks had better representation with 25 representatives in 1992 with Democrats in power than in 2002 with 37 Black members.
Moreover, she concluded that for the long-term, African American numbers in Congress is “not likely to grow and there might even be some retrenchment” given changing demographics, especially growing Hispanic populations in once majority black districts. Swain said the challenge to the Black Caucus is to be flexible enough “to seize opportunities that arise in the Republican Congress” and not be tied to the racial politics or causes of the past. She also noted that Democrats are now working with Blacks to “un-pack” majority Black districts to attempt to change the make-up of Congress again.
Walter Fauntroy, former Delegate for the District of Columbia to the U.S. House of Representatives, argued that people define their lives now the same as they always have, and that is in terms of five principal goals: decent income, education, healthcare, housing and shelter from the elements, and justice. The purpose of government and politics is to determine who gets what, how, and why, and minorities have always gotten the least of the five life definers because they are not adequately represented or looked out for by government. Fauntroy says today’s government is similar to that in 1981 when he was Black Caucus chairman in the House and presented an alternative budget. “Government is controlled by two groups,” he observed, “the fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives. The fiscal conservatives want to preserve their place in the financial order, while the social conservatives want to preserve the existing social order.”
“What we [were] tempted to do in the Caucus … was to move the nation to the … principle that we must have a government that promotes the general welfare, and when you do that, everyone is likely to have a better quality of life,” stated Fauntroy. He counted on Republicans only to ensure the continued power of the wealthy.
Juan Williams, author of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary and Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-65 and national correspondent for NPR and a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday, added to the discussion with a broad overview of the history of how Black leadership has changed, beginning with reconstruction, through the civil rights era, and to the present. During the civil rights era the principal issues were desegregation and busing; today they are the quality of schools, safety and crime, commercial development and government contracts.
He used the case of Prince George’s County Maryland to illustrate the current views of Black constituents. This Washington, D.C. suburb has transitioned from a predominantly white, rural county to one that is predominantly Black with urban problems. In 2002, the district elected a coalition-building Black representative, Albert Wynn, by 80 percent of the vote. Here, Blacks have moved from supporting strictly civil rights issues to a general economic and safety agenda in common with Hispanic and White interests.
Williams noted that minorities comprise easily one-third of all Americans—if they can find common ground, as this Maryland district has, they will be a strong force to ensure their political success.
Hispanic Congressional Leadership
Hispanic minorities first became the focus of the discussion when Swain noted that the work of Hispanics in Congress could begin to cause tensions with Blacks.
“Hispanic caucus members are very conscious of their new-found status as the lead demographic minority and will continue to press and ask for parity in … power,” reported Robert Underwood, former Delegate for Guam and member of the Hispanic Caucus. However, he agreed that this might augment tension between minority groups.
Underwood described the Hispanic minority as cognizant of the broad views of Hispanics, unlike its CBC counterparts. He also described their media capacity as their strongest asset—they can easily connect with Hispanics nationwide through Spanish television and radio. Underwood expressed hope that Blacks, Hispanics as well as Asians would work toward creating a common agenda, but noted he had yet to see progress thus far.
“The real road to power for these minority caucuses … has to be to develop a common coalition agenda to take the traditional civil rights agenda, update it and broaden it and try to frame it in a way that is understood by large segments of the American public…” as well as to place members within the institutional establishment, stated Underwood.
Asian Congressional Leadership
While the Hispanic Caucus must serve the interests of many diverse groups ranging from South America, Central America and Cuba, the Asia-Pacific American Caucus (APA) has a much wider range of interests. Underwood, who also served on the APA, explained that at times the interests of Koreans, Pakistanis, Japanese, and Pacific Islanders, among others, must be resolved. However, this diversity facilitates coalition-building to deal with the specific problems of its members.
“By its very nature, they understand that it has to be an eclectic agenda,” stated Underwood.
Also, he underscored that no Asian-American represents the districts that consist of the highest percentages of Asian ethnicities. Members on this particular caucus usually have a low percentage of Asian constituents, thus many times it is only one specific group that members find important—or they devote little time to Asian interests.
While there has been some movement towards developing a common agenda between the three caucuses (CBC, Hispanic, and APA), nothing has come of it thus far. “Instead of developing a common agenda, Members are spread out everywhere in Congress with different committee assignments and interests, and no one has yet figured out how to use that.”
However, concluded Underwood, “Time is on the side of the minorities, if they understand that they have to build a coalition….”