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Has the Congressional Black Caucus Lost Its Conscience?

The activist group Color for Change charges that the CBC PAC serves corporations, not African Americans.

Representative Gregory Meeks, CBC PAC chairman, announces the group's Clinton endorsement. (Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images)

Throughout primary season, Hillary Clinton has dominated with African Americans, winning higher percentages than Barack Obama garnered against her in 2008. This can lead to a too-pat assumption that the black community represents a monolithic voting bloc, with identical concerns and preferences. While it’s true that African Americans are empirically among the most loyal Democratic voters, the idea that there’s no daylight between millions of people makes no sense. 

One example of the fault lines within this large constituency presented a challenge this week to the black political leadership in Washington. Online progressive group Color of Change directly questioned the motives of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, or CBC PAC. The challenge was precipitated by a non-endorsement of high-profile black U.S. Senate candidate Donna Edwards, but it raised a much larger issue: Does the Congressional Black Caucus faithfully represent the best interests of the community at large, or instead of the corporate interests that fund it? 

This campaign arm of the CBC, Color of Change charged, trades off the history and prestige of the caucus, but is dominated by corporate lobbyists. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, calls the maneuver “civil-rights washing,” much like the “greenwashing” that corporations engage in to burnish their environmental image. “Corporations give money or create alliances with civil-rights communities to avoid being held accountable for their bad practices,” Robinson says.

The CBC brand is used for multiple entities. First, there’s the congressional caucus, which dates back to 1971 and now includes 46 members, 45 of whom are Democrats (Republican Mia Love of Utah is also a member). There’s the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, nominally a research institute with a separate leadership team, which features a scholarship program, a philanthropic fund, and various other initiatives. There’s the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, a “social purpose” organization engaged in voter education and leadership training. Finally, there’s the CBC PAC, launched in 1990 to increase the number of African Americans in Congress and foster black political participation.

These last three, all one step removed from the actual caucus, sadly often serve as a way to launder corporate contributions through the political system. Back in 2010, The New York Times explained that over a five-year period, the CBC Foundation had pulled in $53 million in corporate money from pharmaceutical, financial, telecommunications, and other interests. Little of that cash went to research or scholarships; the lion’s share went to glitzy conventions, golf and casino junkets, and paying off the foundation’s headquarters.

Despite the long history of the Congressional Black Caucus as an un-bought collection of socially conscious leaders, these extreme efforts to buy influence cannot help but have an impact. In recent years, CBC members have joined with Republicans to repeatedly undermine Dodd-Frank financial rules. Others have been accused of shilling for for-profit colleges. Still others formed the backbone of the fight against the (eventually passed) net-neutrality rules.

Color of Change focused on the CBC PAC because of the makeup of its 21-member board of directors, which decides political endorsements. Only eight of those directors are elected CBC members; the other 13 include two employees of the PAC and eleven corporate lobbyists. As Lee Fang laid out last month at The Intercept, these lobbyists represent dozens of firms, including student-loan servicer Navient, routinely accused of violating consumer-protection laws; Lorillard Tobacco, manufacturer of Newport cigarettes; dirty energy utilities Entergy and Energy Future Holdings; and Purdue Pharmaceuticals, maker of OxyContin and perhaps as responsible as any company for the opioid epidemic.

The PAC, which has raised $2.7 million since 2010, gets its funding from the biggest firms in America, like telecoms AT&T and Comcast, payday lender Cash America, mega-banks JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, minimum-wage foe the National Restaurant Association, and private-prison firm Corrections Corporation of America.

Many of these industries directly target black communities, whether through mass incarceration or the subprime lending crisis or opposing the Fight for $15. Even the white Democratic presidential candidates have disavowed private prison money; the fact that the CBC PAC cannot is disquieting. “These are corporations that we’re consistently campaigning against,” says Robinson. “They represent institutions that are not in the interest of black folks.” 

While Bernie Sanders supporters criticized the CBC PAC for endorsing Hillary Clinton for President last month, the non-endorsement for Maryland’s open Senate seat is perhaps more egregious. Representative Edwards, a CBC member, is running to become only the second black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. But the PAC refused to endorse her in the primary against Representative Chris Van Hollen, who is white.

Former Congressman Al Wynn, now a corporate lobbyist and a CBC PAC board member, led the charge against endorsing Edwards, according to Politico. This is incredibly problematic; Wynn lost his seat in a primary to Edwards in 2008. “It raises all the questions that people have about Washington, and why people don’t trust Washington,” Robinson says.

When the CBC PAC endorses political candidates, it gives the mistaken impression that the caucus members made the endorsement. Congressional Black Caucus members had to correct the record by disavowing the Clinton endorsement of their own PAC within hours of the announcement.

When CBC PAC held its endorsement announcement for Clinton, Robinson says, “Nowhere in the pictures did you see corporate lobbyists at the microphone.” To Color of Change, the CBC PAC allows corporate power to brandish the shield of institutions with high regard among black people, in ways that deceive the community. In the group’s petition to members of the CBC, Color of Change demands that the caucus change the composition of the PAC board and drop ties with industries that directly harm the black community.

When asked by BuzzFeed about the Color of Change action, CBC PAC executive director Benjamin Branch (himself a former telecom lobbyist) declined to comment.

Organizations like Color of Change and the Black Lives Matter movement, which sit outside the political power base and can criticize the gatekeepers, have always operated as a spur to hold leaders accountable. And they are targeting a fundamental question in the networked political era: Who gets to speak for a community?

It can be uncomfortable to criticize an organization that has persevered for decades as the “Conscience of the Congress.” But when the CBC tries to play an inside game and falls under the spell of big money, the credibility it’s worked so hard to sustain—and which corporations want desperately to tap into—can vanish.

Robinson says he’s received a lot of thanks—privately—from members of the African American political community in Washington for taking a stand. “Just because someone’s on the PAC and works as a lobbyist doesn’t mean they’re not a good person,” he says. “But it does mean they’re compromised. If we don’t raise this issue, then we lose our moral authority.”