By Roger House
As voters express anxiety over President Biden’s handling of the economy, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) gathered in Washington last week to discuss an agenda for the 2024 election and beyond. I attended the conference to learn what this national organization of elected leaders, and its many supporters, plans to do about the economic stress in the Black community. What follows are some observations on the topics of discussion, and on how the CBC can do more to give people alternatives for achieving economic empowerment.
To its credit, the conference featured panels that shifted the focus away from non-economic demands, a notable departure from the agenda promoted by civil rights leaders over the summer — the NAACP convention in July, with a primary message on voting rights, and the March on Washington in August “against hate and for civil rights.”
By contrast, the CBC conference took steps to shape an economic message for different levels of concern. An economic message is urgent, in light of the longstanding barriers to prosperity for many Black Americans. Even in times of expansion, there has been little change in the fundamentals of an enormous wealth gap, persistent wage gap, disproportionate levels of unemployment, low workforce participation, limited fields of occupation, and a half-century of stunted growth of the middle class, according to The Unfinished March, a 2013 symposium by the Economic Policy Institute.
The CBC made a priority case for breaking down racial barriers in the private sector. It called for a defense of corporations that carry out policies of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). For corporations with strong DEI policies in training, hiring, promotion and contracting, CBC support will serve as a counterweight to right-wing forces attempting to demonize such policies.
In a panel discussion on DEI, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the CBC chairman, suggested the need for a congressional resolution requiring large corporations to be transparent about diversity efforts and to publish annual reports on DEI goals and benchmarks. “We cannot have Black economic mobility without dealing with the DEI question,” Horsford said. “This is a clarion call to hold the line on DEI in the private sector, in schools, and in government — and to expand the vision for creating true Black wealth.”
Joining in the discussion was Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, the rapper, record producer and television executive. Speaking as a successful businessman, he exhorted the audience to be proactive in the pursuit of an economic agenda, noting: “A lot of us are living the illusion of inclusion — but true diversity is about sharing power.”
Others pointed to the need for inclusive hiring and contracting under federal infrastructure projects. The Inflation Reduction Act and the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will invest vast sums in electric battery plants, electric vehicle factories, electric charging stations, the weatherization of public buildings, and the reconstruction of highways, bridges and tunnels — projects that will require hiring and training thousands of skilled workers. The CBC wants to guarantee inclusionary practices in a construction industry that historically has excluded Black workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the racial demographic in the construction industry is 60% white, 30% Hispanic, and 5% Black American.
Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., described how the racial culture of the construction industry combines with resistant state Republican administrations to thwart equity provisions in the federal laws. He noted the importance of including language for strong equity standards for prime public contracts, and suggested creating local industry disparity studies and underserved zip code preferences to better the chances of Black participation. Social media can be used to recruit disaffected young men to the construction trades, he said.
Tonya Hicks, founder of Power Solutions Inc., an electrical contractor company in Mississippi, said the infrastructure project bidding process should be adjusted to give small, minority-owned companies a better chance to compete. One way is to limit the scale of projects to packages manageable by subcontractors. Another is to separate projects subject to union hiring rules from less costly non-union projects. A third is to reconsider the requirement for bond and insurance liability for simple projects.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) advocated for inclusion in investment opportunities, suggesting a requirement of 30% equity stakes by Black-owned investment funds in urban redevelopment projects.
However, the conference missed a chance to examine three non-traditional avenues for economic development. First, it was silent on the potential benefits of forging cooperative strategies among Black organizations such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, churches, the self-employed, and professional associations.
Second, the CBC neglected the feasibility of strategic migration to four southern states of political and economic promise: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. This strategy aims to recruit middle-class people in politically repressive states to relocate to states where they can assist in a project to expand Black political and economic influence.
Third, the CBC merely skimmed the question of a coordinated approach to seeking reparations, one that could build institutional wealth. Rather than individuals seeking restitution, the demands for reparations should take into account the full scope of the crimes against a race of people. Would it not make sense to direct payments to compensatory entities such as development funds and supplemental pension funds established in Black-owned banks?
The omissions aside, the CBC has put a message of economic justice on the political agenda for 2024. In the days ahead, its two senators and 54 House members would do well to reflect on the insights of the late social psychologist Amos Wilson. In his 1998 study, Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for the Twenty-First Century, Wilson cautioned that “Black politics and activism without the Black ownership of and control over primary forms and bases of power such as property, wealth, and organization is the recipe for Black political and non-political powerlessness.”
Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” His forthcoming book is “Five Hundred Years of Black Self Governance” by Louisiana State University Press.