Why a Black Caucus?
Just rely on the kindness of Republicans, rural Democrats
by Frank Cagle
How come we have a Black Caucus in the General Assembly; do we have a White Caucus? This is a question I’ve heard a lot lately.
Why, indeed, should legislators from poor urban districts band together? Why don’t they just disperse themselves among the general population of legislator land? They could depend on the kindness and generosity of Republicans, rural Democrats and suburban white people of both parties to do the right thing for the urban poor and black people in general. Why are they suspicious of that approach, just because they have been marginalized, denied voting rights and discriminated against for more than 100 years?
Could it be that, by banding together, they have the strength, even as a minority, to negotiate with the House leadership to get things for their districts? To demand that minority rights are protected? To see that leadership positions include a proportional share of blacks?
You would think that the Black Caucus is the only special-interest caucus in the General Assembly. But there’s an East Tennessee Caucus, a Sportsman’s Caucus, a Freshman Caucus. There are any number of like-minded legislators who get together to discuss common issues, introduce legislation and vote together to advance an agenda.
That said, is the Black Caucus without sin? Let’s remember, we are talking about legislators here. Let’s also remember that they have a lot of power, and the temptation for abuse is ever-present. As the most liberal element of the General Assembly, some of the members are less than tolerant toward other minorities—like House Republicans. That is especially true of the Memphis delegation. On occasion, a black legislator hasn’t been able to overcome the impulse to (metaphorically) smack some “cracker” over a piece of legislation.
Over the years, there have been study committees that have traveled to Africa or the Caribbean, until budget deficits stopped the practice. A frequent complaint is double-dipping. If all the Democrats (including the Black Caucus) and all the Republicans get a free weekend at one of the state’s tourist resorts, why does the Black Caucus get to go again for a separate retreat? (Setting aside for the moment the propriety of any of them doing it.) If the Democrats travel to a national convention, then why do the African Americans get to go to another convention, just for black legislators? If the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Caucus get state-paid staff, why should the Black Caucus get clerical help? The Black Caucus also has fund-raisers and collects donations without any disclosure requirement.
Well, it’s because they can. They comprise a third of the Democratic votes in the state House of Representatives. For example, do you think, without the Black Caucus, that state Rep. Lois DeBerry would be second in command in the House? That state Rep. Joe Armstrong (D-Knoxville) would be a committee chair as well as serve on powerful committees like Finance?
It understandably rankles many Republican House members. They have been in the minority for 100 years as well, but it never occurred to them to work together until just lately. It also rankles some conservative rural Democrats, but they know they wouldn’t be able to retain control of the House without African American votes.
That brings us to state Rep. Stacey Campfield. Campfield is like the kid with the scab on his knee; he can’t resist scratching it. He gets onto something, and he won’t leave it alone. He started poking around the Black Caucus, a fishing expedition to discover if any shenanigans are being perpetrated.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But rather than thinking through his position and preparing himself to defend it, he wandered off into dangerous rhetoric. Comparing the Black Caucus’s membership requirement to the Ku Klux Klan was a slip that will be impossible to take back. You don’t compare your colleagues to a terrorist organization and not expect to get hammered.
Campfield had already gotten the Democratic leadership angry, with his observations about how things are done in the General Assembly. Campfield has put himself in the position of letting the Black Caucus and the media bleed him out, and the Democratic leadership can just sit back and watch.
Perhaps Campfield thinks the Black Caucus, as a powerful force in the House, is overstepping the bounds of propriety. Then he should make that argument. But to suggest they shouldn’t exist because they aren’t needed is a specious argument. Evidently some conservative Republicans think we have reached a Golden Age of colorblindness. Do they really believe that blacks would get a fair shake in the Tennessee General Assembly if they didn’t stick together and look out for one another? Get real.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .