On Monday, the College hosted nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who participated in a forum moderated by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes entitled “Race and the New Congress.” In a series of question and answer sessions held throughout the day, members of the CBC sat down for interviews with the press.
Through this election the Democratic Party has taken advantage of the generation of college-aged students. How do you plan to continue this support in Washington?
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), Majority Whip: Well I would hope we continue to utilize the support of this younger generation. We certainly have a youth agenda. I suspect a lot of young people got involved this time over the war in Iraq. They want to see a change in those policies and I think that we are going to deliver on that.
There’s enthusiasm that has to be captured and maintained. And I think that’s something the Obama administration will be taking a serious look at – how to keep people engaged in some way, shape, form or fashion, towards not only finding solutions from a policy perspective, but also being volunteers, being engaged in their community, doing social service work, doing all kinds of work that will help put America where we want it to be.
What are the priorities for the CBC right now looking towards January?
Clyburn: The priority right now is to get people back to work. How do we stabilize our finance markets? How do we incentivize young people and folks who want to go into this job market? How do we once again stand the main streets and other streets across America? That is the number one thing for us, to get people back to work.
We were talking earlier about what we do with the American automobile industry. If you’ve got between two to three million jobs at stake, why are we playing around with this? I don’t care about the people in the high places. I care about the people who are going to lose their jobs, who are on the assembly lines who will no longer be employed. We can write the legislation to protect them. So why haven’t we? Because [the Bush] administration absolutely does not care about ordinary people.
How do you think that you can move quickly to capitalize on what’s happened, in the interest of the Caucus?
Clyburn: I think we’ll proceed in the regular order. This is evolutionary; we didn’t get to this place in one day, one election. We want to begin a lasting process, something that will hopefully heal the country. And I don’t think you do that unless you develop a kind of movement that everybody’s a part of.
Obama is laying the foundation, bringing in the people, using the Lincoln model to really have a foundation so that when Congress opens and he takes office, Obama will have had so much input. He has a 75 percent [approval rating] right now. That could dissipate over night if he pushes too far left or right. George [W.] Bush won each election by one state and declared that he had a mandate. It is so good to see someone win a massive election, 365 electoral votes while still keeping his feet on the ground, bringing in people, laying down the foundations so that we can all get this country together. I don’t want to do anything quickly – I want to do it lastingly.
Rep. Danny Davis (Ill.): I don’t think we want to dampen the enthusiasm in any kind of way. We want the people to remain hopeful, to be enthusiastic, to be engaged, but also know that they have to manage expectations. There is a process to what we’re trying to accomplish. If someone were to ask me: do I think we are going to get some very progressive legislation passed? Yes. Are we going to be more effective in doing it than in the last four years? Absolutely yes. Will we have all of the problems solved that we would like to solve? Obviously not in four years.
What do you expect Obama to accomplish regarding the African-American community?
Davis: I think the expectations actually go beyond the fact that he is African-American or black. [In this election,] people were seriously seeking systemic change, no matter who the candidate was. I think Barack Obama is fortunate to be taking office at a time when people are clamoring for what he is promoting.
Donna Christensen (V.I.): I don’t think anyone can ever deny the challenges that the president faces. And in addition to that, whatever is wrong in this country, black people or people of color suffer a disproportionate impact of. As he considers health care, education, the economy, even global climate change, he’s going to be addressing at least at the outset some of the issues that we’re adversely impacted by. I think the Congressional Black Caucus has done a lot to sensitize these issues; we’ve started to prepare them for this moment.
How has the election of an African-American president likely to change the agenda of the Black Caucus?
Davis: I really don’t think that it will change the goals of the Black Caucus. [However] … it gives the Black Caucus a sense that there is much more of an ally in the White House. But the agenda of the Caucus has been the agenda of promoting equal opportunity, promoting equal justice, equal protection, looking at the disparities that exist.
So you think the Caucus will be more effective now?
Watson: I will assume the Caucus’ initiatives will be able to get through. We picked up twenty seats. And there are still a couple pending in the Senate, and that gives us close to being able to have a two-thirds [majority].
And there’s some moderate Republicans you think might be influenced also.
Davis: When you’re close enough, you can do a little arm twisting – as opposed to moderate arm twisting. If you’re up to 57 or 58 senators – as skillful as Barack is as a negotiator-he’ll be able to work his magic a little bit.
How will that work, if you’re on the left on some issues, and Obama is governing from the center?
Watson: I’m sure he will indicate to us where we should probably amend. I don’t think he’s going to veto a lot of our legislation.
Do you still consider Obama to be a member of the caucus?
Davis: Of course. Absolutely.
Watson: He resigned his position yesterday, but still.
Many of you here saw the Million Man March – where do you think inauguration day will stand in terms of that crowd?
Clyburn: None of that will compare to the size of this. I think on Inauguration Day, there will still be people trying to get into the city. There are stories coming out of this that are symbolic of what people have been yearning for. People looking for somewhere to express themselves – people waiting eight hours three weeks before the election to cast their vote. A lot of people wondered if America would have get an opportunity to be free of all this.
Rep. John Lewis (Ga.): By the time the march was over in 1963, some people never made it. I think that on Jan. 20, people will still be trying to get into the city.
What are your reflections, having had close to two weeks, on the effects of Obama’s election?
Rep. Yvette Clarke (N.Y.): What impressed me most was the sense of ownership that people have. The campaign has offered so many people the opportunity to feel like they’ve made a difference. Because they’ve taken ownership of it, they have to see it through to the end – or to the beginning, however you want to look at it. People feel like, “I made it happen.”
Lewis: I’m sure that this campaign was trying to transcend the old issue of race. People feel liberated, they feel free. I’ll give you one example. I was walking into a building in Atlanta, just two days ago, saw a young man who grew up in Alabama. He just came up to me, crying, saying “We did it. We saw it to the end, to the conclusion.” It won’t be done with one group; it’s going to be done with everybody, because we did it, we participated.
The day after the election, more people had registered guns than ever before. People have been talking about progress, but are you worried about any kind of backlash?
Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Chairman, House Committee on Homeland Security: I think [in this situation] you had people overreact to their fear of losing an election to an African-American. It is really unfortunate that one of the more civilized societies, you elect a person of color, and people run and buy guns. It says that we might not be as civilized as you might think.
Do you have any plans to address this backlash?
Thompson: I think you address it by having good laws as they relate to education, health care and other important issues. At some point [the people who bought the guns] are going to say, “I went out, bought a $400 gun, and I could have bought books or I could have put it on the light bill.” But that’s just unfortunately the way it is. I think that people can be confident that when you elect a commander-in-chief, that person is going to do a good job. And color plays no bounds on the job that they do.