Magazine Feature / People

Blacks in Congress focused on ‘closing gaps’

The Democratic takeover of the U.S. Congress this month ushers in a “golden era” for African-American political power, experts say.

Peter Groff tracked the progress of 138 African-American campaigns on his Web site,

For the first time, blacks chair 23 House committees and subcommittees, including the influential Ways and Means and Judiciary committees. An African-American now holds the third-highest position in the House; another is secretary of state and yet another is seriously considering a run for the presidency.

“I think there’s a certain amount of pride in the African-American community,” says Peter Groff, president pro-tem of the Colorado Senate and executive director of the University of Denver Center for African-American Policy. “For many, a better tomorrow now seems closer on the horizon.”

The first issues to appear on that horizon, according to Groff and other black leaders, will be an increase in the minimum wage, better access to higher education and improved health care coverage for children and seniors. 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., says the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is closely aligned with Democrats in Congress and will use its new power to shift policy preferences from the rich to the poor and middle class.

“We are focused on closing gaps that have widened during this administration,” says Clyburn, now the third-ranking Democrat in the House.

Clyburn, whose job as majority whip is to line up votes for Democratic initiatives, will have help from new African-American power brokers in the House, including New York’s Charles Rangel, who now heads the Ways and Means Committee; Michigan’s John Conyers, leading the Judiciary Committee; Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, presiding over the Homeland Security Committee; and California’s Juanita Millender-McDonald, chairing the Administration Committee. 

Previously, only one African-American has chaired a major House committee. Adam Clayton Powell, a Democrat representing Harlem, was elected to lead the House Labor and Education Committee in 1961. 

During the 2006 election, Groff tracked the progress of 138 African-American national and statewide campaigns through, a Web site that has become the most authoritative African-American site in the country, according to new CBC Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. Groff is publisher of the site, which is well populated with polling data, audio interviews and policy analysis on African-American issues and candidates.

The Web site supports Groff’s teaching and leadership at DU, where the Center for African-American Policy blends public-policy research with academics and public service. 

Although there was no net gain in African-American representatives this election, the Democratic takeover and subsequent ascension of African-American leaders will give blacks a larger voice in the Congress, Groff says. Kilpatrick says progress on issues important to African-Americans will be made during the next two years, but the real prize will come in 2008 when Democrats — perhaps led by Illinois Senator Barack Obama — will take back the presidency.

In the meantime, Groff expects the 40-member CBC to line up behind Clyburn and the Democratic leadership on wages, health care and higher education. But African-Americans, like all Americans, don’t necessarily march in ideological lockstep, he says. The CBC, he says, leans more toward the liberalism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and to the left of many of the newly elected conservative or “Blue Dog” Democrats.

How their ideological differences surface depends on the issue, Groff says. African-Americans are likely to follow Pelosi in calling for a different course on the war in Iraq. But they’re split on immigration, he says, with some worried about Hispanic immigrants taking jobs away from blacks and others opposed to what they see as the inherent racism involved in the immigration issue. 

Kilpatrick says the CBC will have no problem reaching across the party line or across the aisle. African-Americans in Congress, she says, represent a diverse population of 30 million Americans across the country. 

“We are not one ideology,” she says. “Like most Americans, we will disagree from time to time. But what’s good for the country is good for the caucus.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, January 2007.

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