Black Caucus Fights To Stay Relevant

Today marks the start of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Annual Legislative Conference. This year's theme is "Embracing the Promise and Realizing the Vision." Representative Andre Carson, from Indiana, one of the youngest members of the Caucus, discusses the evolving role of the CBC and the impact of the 2008 presidential election and the recent crisis on Wall Street.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation kicks off its annual legislative conference today. It's 38. It's commonly known as CBC Week around here in Washington. It's a time when black leaders from around the country and African-American members of Congress meet to network, brainstorm and make plans for the coming year. This year, the caucus is in uncharted waters.

For the first time ever, a member of the caucus is a major-party nominee for president. But even as they celebrate that milestone, the lawmakers are also confronting an economic crisis that has already taken a heavier toll in the black community than in others, with higher housing foreclosures, higher than average unemployment. So, what does the caucus have to say about these issues?

To talk about this, we're joined by the group's newest member, Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana. He is a Democrat. He was elected in March to fill the seat of his late grandmother, Julia Carson. Of course, he has to run again in November to keep that seat. He's with us now. Welcome, congressman. Thank you so much.

Representative ANDRE CARSON (Democrat, Indiana): It's a pleasure to be here. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great, thank you. Of course, we have to start with the economic issues. You're actually at the center of the action. You sit on the House Financial Services Committee. The Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman met with the Senate yesterday. They're scheduled to meet with your committee today. What's your first take on the president's bailout plan? Are you planning to support it?

Rep. CARSON: Well, you know, short answer, yes. Not happy with everything that's in the language right now, in the proposal, but we have to do it to help fellow Americans. We've unfortunately put our financial situation in the hands of those CEOs who aren't sensitive to the needs of the common men and women. Now, President Bush and the administration is literally pinning the tail on the donkey, the Democratic leadership and the American people, to bail them out of this mess.

MARTIN: But you're going to support the plan?

Rep. CARSON: I will support the plan, but certain provisions have to be instilled...

MARTIN: Like what?

Rep. CARSON: You know, Michel, I'm concerned about Goldman Sachs wants to make a play to become the asset managers. Where's the conversation going toward having women-owned and minority-owned businesses as a part of this conversation in terms of asset management?

MARTIN: So, is that a deal breaker for you, if there's no such provision?

Rep. CARSON: I'd like to see it. I'd like to see other provisions. You know, I'd like to see golden parachutes taken out, eliminated. And I also want to see measures instilled that will mandate that we have some kind of a plan to avoid future foreclosures. By securing these mortgages, Michel, and guaranteeing that they not fall into foreclosure, the government, we will be helping thousands of families in danger of defaulting. So, what I'm hearing from my constituents is that they're upset, they're disappointed. But at the same time, we can't allow our country to go into disarray.

MARTIN: But if there isn't specific language addressing mortgage foreclosure specifically, you're still going to support the bill?

Rep. CARSON: No. Absolutely not.

MARTIN: So, that's deal breaker for you...

Rep. CARSON: The reason why - so, it's the deal breaker for me.

MARTIN: Speaking of that issue, you know, the Black Caucus calls itself the conscience of the Congress, but the caucus has not, as a group, weighed in yet on the financial crisis. The last statement about anything having to do with the relevant issues was back in July, when the House passed a bill on mortgage foreclosures, the issue you were just talking about. Why haven't we heard more from the caucus as a group, on something that many would argue affected minority communities - black and Latino communities - first and more severely?

Rep. CARSON: You know, the CBC is addressing the issue. There are many members who are at the forefront, too many to name - Chairwoman Kilpatrick, Maxine Waters, Kendrick Meek - and the list goes on and on and on. Brother Gregory Meeks out of New York, myself and others, Senator Barack Obama, are out in the forefront on this issue. You know, when we talk about asset management, when we talk about liquidation and that kind of thing, most Americans don't know what we're talking about. Most Americans are concerned about their jobs.

The constituents in my district - the state of Indianapolis alone, 80 percent of my constituents, not only in the seventh congressional district, but in the state of Indiana, are without college degrees. Seventy percent of Americans are without college degrees. Americans want to - Americans are concerned about why have we seen jobs leave our country and go overseas. Americans are concerned about job creation in our nation. That's what they're concerned about. So, how - our duty is to distill this information, translate it, make it palpable, and allow Americans to see how this affects them in their everyday lives.

MARTIN: But that would argue then that perhaps if you're saying that individual members have taken leadership on this issue, and of course, Charlie Rangel's the head of the - one of the most significant tax-running committees...

Rep. CARSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Perhaps the caucus isn't relevant as an entity anymore.

Rep. CARSON: The caucus is very relevant. It's the conscience of the Congress. I mean...

MARTIN: But how is it expressing its conscience at the Congress? How is it expressing that identity if that is, indeed, the identity it sees for itself? How is it being reflected? I mean, the caucus used to present an alternate budget, for example, which reorganized the nation's priorities according to the way the caucus felt they should be expressed. It doesn't do that anymore. So, how is it expressing itself as the conscience of the Congress?

Rep. CARSON: Well, you know, first, the CBC encapsulates its goals in the following ways. First, Michel, we always talk about closing the achievement and opportunity gaps in education, assuring quality healthcare for all Americans, particularly African-Americans, focusing on employment and economic security, and we always talk about ensuring justice for all people, particularly when we talk about retirement security for our wonderful seniors, and increasing the equity in foreign policy.

When we talk about securing our seniors, particularly when we talk about African-American seniors, those of my district and other places, there was talk from the Bush administration months ago about privatizing Social Security. On my campaign, we always say privatization is a private vacation for a corporate CEO. That's oversimplified, oversimplify. But the point is simple. Had we privatized Social Security, we really would have been in a mess, throwing our precious tax dollars and our senior's savings to the whim of the stock market.

MARTIN: Congressman, excuse me, I just have to pause here, just briefly...

Rep. CARSON: We've seen enough...

MARTIN: To say if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with Congressman Andre Carson, Democrat of Indiana. We're talking about the economic issues that are in the news. And we're also talking about the opening of the annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference. Congressman, can we just wheel around for a minute to politics? As we've noted, this is the first time a member of the caucus has been a major-party nominee for president. What difference do you think it will make to have Barack Obama in the White House? What difference would it make to the work of the caucus?

Rep. CARSON: I think it would make our work that much more easier because Senator Obama represents the needs, wants and desires of Americans. He's progressive. He's a visionary. Americans are yearning for change. We've had eight years of an imperialistic administration that has seemed to care more about big business and corporate interests. Senator Obama's concerned about the people. The Congressional Black Caucus is concerned about the people's needs, wants and desires. And I think he's the man for the job. You know, a president is only as good as his or her Congress. And with the CBC president and other visionary-thinking leaders in our Congress, I think we can really change this country.

MARTIN: Has the Obama candidacy affected political participation in and around your district? Do you see, sort of, more energy, more excitement...

Rep. CARSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Than in previous years?

Rep. CARSON: Absolutely.

Rep. CARSON: Oh, absolutely. My campaign, Senator Obama's campaign have - they're really one organization in a sense. We've seen so much from across the racial spectrum, from across the social spectrum, crossing age lines, and that kind of thing. We've seen 18 year olds, and we've seen senior citizens, 80 and 90 and 95 years old hyped, engaged, ready for a change. They're motivated by Senator Obama. They come with tears in their eyes. We've seen people who said, you know what? I haven't voted in 20 years, but because of Senator Barack Obama and his vision, I'm pumped up. We're fired up, and we're ready to make a change.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the fact that - speaking of age - at the age of 33, you're the second youngest member of the U.S. House. You're the youngest member of the Black Caucus. It was noted that earlier in the year, a lot of the senior members of the caucus - about a third of the caucus, many of them senior members - supported Senator Clinton. A lot of the younger and newer members supported Senator Obama. Of course now, of course they're all united behind him. But do you think that there's a generation gap in the Black Caucus?

Rep. CARSON: You know what? That hasn't been my experience. From what I've seen, of course, the Black Caucus is not a monolith. But at the same time, the older members have been very nurturing. They're always free to give advice. And I think they've allowed many of the younger members to, kind of, be autonomous, and they often encourage the younger members to work together and come up with ideas that will help further the caucus' agendas and goals.

MARTIN: But you know, the other interesting thing is that the demographics of the country are changing. A number of members of the Black Caucus now have significant numbers of Latino constituents. I wonder, what does this mean in terms of the changing world of the Congressional Black Caucus? I bet your district is increasingly diverse.

Rep. CARSON: Absolutely...

MARTIN: What do you think that means? I mean, do you think that perhaps the idea of a Black Caucus, per se, is no longer as relevant, that perhaps it should be a black and brown caucus?

Rep. CARSON: No.

MARTIN: What do you think it means for the future?

Rep. CARSON: No. I think that we have to have a black caucus that speaks directly to the needs of the African-American community, that community that helped build this country, that community that still carries psychological damage from slavery. We still need to allow Latino brothers and sisters to have their caucus to address their needs and the psychological damage that has happened to them over the years with the inception and growth of this nation.

But you know, I can't speak nationwide, but I can speak to my district. The Latino and black community in my district has had a unique relationship. Sure, there've been misunderstandings, but overall, there's been a unified effort to get things done. We look at the wonderful contribution that we talk about, age, that the Latino and black communities have had in terms of the hip-hop movement, dating back to the '70s, dating back to break dancing with the influence from out of Brazil with Capoeira infused in break dancing.

And the Latino and African influences that we see, not only in the lyrical dexterity from these young men and women, but I think the ingenuity in terms of their artistry. So, we've seen a great deal of work between both communities, because both communities come from struggle, and both communities have made significant contributions to our wonderful nation in terms of business, philosophy, and so on.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there. Andre Carson is a U.S. congressman. He represents Indiana's seventh district. He joined me from the studios of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill. Good luck for a successful conference, congressman. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. CARSON: Thank you.

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