Black Caucus: Whites Not Allowed

By: Josephine Hearn
January 24, 2007 09:07 PM EST


As a white liberal running in a majority African American district, Tennessee Democrat Stephen I. Cohen made a novel pledge on the campaign trail last year: If elected, he would seek to become the first white member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Now that he's a freshman in Congress, Cohen has changed his plans. He said he has dropped his bid after several current and former caucus members made it clear to him that whites need not apply.

"I think they're real happy I'm not going to join," said Cohen, who succeeded Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., in the Memphis district. "It's their caucus and they do things their way. You don't force your way in. You need to be invited."

Cohen said he became convinced that joining the caucus would be "a social faux pas" after seeing news reports that former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., D-Mo., a co-founder of the caucus, had circulated a memo telling members it was "critical" that the group remain "exclusively African-American."

Other members, including the new chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and Clay's son, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., agreed.

"Mr. Cohen asked for admission, and he got his answer. ... It's time to move on," the younger Clay said. "It's an unwritten rule. It's understood. It's clear."

The bylaws of the caucus do not make race a prerequisite for membership, a House aide said, but no non-black member has ever joined.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who is white, tried in 1975 when he was a sophomore representative and the group was only six years old.

"Half my Democratic constituents were African American. I felt we had interests in common as far as helping people in poverty," Stark said. "They had a vote, and I lost. They said the issue was that I was white, and they felt it was important that the group be limited to African Americans."

Cohen remains hopeful, though, that he can forge relationships with black members in other ways.

"When I saw the reticence, I didn't want anyone to misunderstand my motives. Politically, it was the right thing to do," he said. "There are other ways to gain fellowship with people I respect."

Cohen won his seat in the 60 percent black district as the only white candidate in a crowded primary field. If he faces a primary challenge next year from a black candidate, as expected, some Black Caucus members may work to defeat him.

A similar situation arose in 2004 after redistricting added more black voters to the Houston district of former Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas.

Although House tradition discourages members of the same party from working against each other, about a dozen black lawmakers contributed to Bell's opponent, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, the eventual victor. Even Bell's Houston neighbor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, campaigned against him.

One black member who criticized his colleagues for sandbagging Bell was Cohen's predecessor, Harold Ford.

"You have an incumbent, and you don't support an incumbent? It was inappropriate," Ford told Congressional Quarterly in 2004.

Cohen has won high marks for hiring African Americans. A majority of his staff is African American, he said, including his chief of staff.

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by MILLHILLBOY on 01.25.2007 at 03:54 PM

I bet the black caucus would gladly accept the "horny hillbilly" and his lovely bride who would be president. I and hear it now..Yo all you Bro's and Hoe's we be come toegather today to welcome our number one man and his b.... ya'll give it up for slick willy..

by mark on 01.25.2007 at 12:57 PM

I think we all need to understand that there are differences among us. We all must be able to hold on to our own differences in culture and ethnicity. It doesn't make sense to have such a diverse population then work to totally homogenize our society. Maintaining our differences also doesn't mean racism necessarily must be a bi-product.

by happycat on 01.25.2007 at 12:53 PM

Perhpas there's a middle ground in this debate. Maybe the full voting members of the black caucus should just be African Americans. But maybe they could make a subgoup of "friends of the black caucus." This would be for non-African American who support issues important to African Americans. This would be a way to say that they community is welcome and thankful for non-black support, but still remain true to their group. Just a though.

by Phil WPB FL on 01.25.2007 at 11:53 AM

Concerning the trial of Mr. I. Lewis Libby, the co-defendents should be G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Walowitz. From my point of view, they were all involved.

by Jamie Lovegrove on 01.24.2007 at 11:08 PM

This is against all that America stands for! It is almost as if this caucus is a way of black people getting their "revenge" for the years of discrimination that they had to go under before the times of martin luther king jr.! I thought the whole point was that America was supposed to be a country of unity and equality. Is this not separation and discrimination?


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