First popping off the New Year with a brawling public bang over ethics, a new and much more robust Republican Congress, fully complimented by a Republican president, showed little shyness when presenting legislative priorities at the top of 2017: repeal “ObamaCare;” overhaul the tax code; roll back many of President Obama-era regulations; and figure out how it can accommodate President-elect Donald Trump’s ambitious $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan.
While Republicans seem fairly clear, if not completely unified, on what their policy goals will be, it’s still unclear what the Black political agenda will be.
People put their hands in the air during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)
“The Black political agenda first and foremost needs to focus on wealth creation in our communities,” Democratic strategist Tara Dowdell told the AFRO. “Black leaders need to leverage their political power and platforms to ensure that our community has access to real economic opportunity, contracts, and jobs.”
Others are worried about what the next administration will bring.
“More and more, I’m increasingly concerned about a Trump presidency,” former Obama administration appointee and former Colorado Senate president Peter Groff told the AFRO. “The random trolling Tweets, the attacks on needed government functions such as the intelligence community, the refusal to meet with the press, the appointment of radicals. The list goes on.”
But Groff, one of the first major Black elected officials to endorse then candidate Obama in 2008, expressed worry about what role the Congressional Black Caucus will play in resisting that. “I’m anxiously waiting for the CBC legislative game plan and policy blueprint they will use to counter the radical rollback of the Obama legacy and decades of civil rights milestones. We have to do more than sit in and march.”
Of course, there is no one consolidated Black political party or consolidated one-stop-shop umbrella effort which brings the entire Black body politic under one policy-making roof.
Yet, the Black political space is typically perceived as monolithic and one-dimensional in its composition and application – with many who participate in it long dismissing that assumption as biased and unfair. It has always been, and will continue to persist, as a rather multi-faceted, diverse collection of ideological, cultural, religious and geographic perspectives loosely wedded together by similar experiences, similar identity and similar demands for Black progress. Usually, the goals for justice and a better quality of life are consistent, but differing personalities, causes and generational interests always dramatically diverge on strategy.
The extent of those relationships, and the visible fractures which define them, will come under increased scrutiny in the so-called “Trump Era.” Black political and policy interests will not only be tested, but observers contend they will come under intense re-evaluation. In the case of a hyper-conservative political era just days away from being fully realized, the stakes are increasingly much higher than they were in the previous eight years of the Obama presidency. What may have been seen as distant or manageable threats under President Obama – even with an obstructing Republican Congress – are now considered existential since Trump’s once unforeseen election win.
Complicating the Black political community’s ability to navigate the new political landscape is the fact most Black elected officials are Democrats, along with a Black electorate that has very few close ties to the Republican Party. Relationships between Black Democrats and the fewer Black Republicans are so frayed that there’s little faith the latter can serve as effective liaisons to GOP leaders.
Former senior Obama White House official Heather Foster, envisioned Black elected officials at the local and national level focused on protecting current policies which benefit Blacks as much as they are pushing or negotiating them. Topping that list is, “Protecting the Affordable Care Act given the tremendous impact the law has had on the community making healthcare more affordable and accessible,” she told the AFRO.
“We cannot allow any further cuts to Medicare and Medicaid,” added Foster. “And we’ll need to continue pushing criminal justice reforms and protecting HBCUs and supporting Pre-K education.”
The urgency of a Black political response, then, becomes crucial on a number of issues that may not make headlines the same way a Trump Tweet does, but are viewed as immensely harmful to the collective Black community.
The scope and depth of focus on those issues will hinge largely on what group is putting what amount of energy into them.
Civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the Urban League and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights immediately put voting rights on blast after monitoring weeks of voter suppression schemes in action. Those same groups and others went apoplectic over President-elect’s quick pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) – a staunch political ally of Trump but no friend to Black political interests – as the next Attorney General. The response set the tone for what promises to not only be a blistering Senate confirmation process for Sessions, but a moment for Black political interests to take the spotlight.
Already, protests are emerging throughout Washington, from NAACP sit-ins blocking Sessions’ Senate office this past week to the build-up for massive rallies such as that planned by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network for Inauguration Week.
Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie, however, recommends some caution to the traditional public noise approach of civil rights groups, bolstered by the usual supporting cast of CBC members. “As far as substance goes, I expect Black Congressional members to organize against certain Trump nominees – Sessions would be a target,” Gillespie told the AFRO. “I expect Black politicians to be vigilant against any racist rhetoric that may come from the Trump administration.”
As Foster notes, there will be a need to solidify federal-state-local linkages while making job creation a key agenda item whether its Trump’s proposed infrastructure bill or local legislation to support minority contracting and small business growth.
Black state legislators and mayors, especially, find themselves on the front line of that fight, hoping that they can wield influence in state capitols and city halls in ways that can offset negative impact from the Trumpian agenda.
Illinois State Rep. Carol Ammons, among others, is working to protect Black communities under the Trump administration. (Courtesy photo)
“For the Trump presidency, Black political leaders should be focused on economic justice,” Illinois State Rep. Carol Ammons (D) told the AFRO. “We have to stop believing the free market is going to self-correct and provide a job economy that allows all people to prosper. The Black community needs a political platform that pushes state and federal government to dedicate significant resources to provide job training and retraining.”
Tennessee State Rep. Harold Love (D) said that agenda will also need to highlight issues with less pop culture resonance – such as the environment, food deserts and K-12 education – but are nevertheless as crucial as big ticket mainstream items such as jobs and criminal justice. “Increased emphasis on environmental just is key so that we don’t have any other communities experience what Flint, Mich. experienced,” he said. “We also need to raise awareness about the extremely low numbers of grocery stores in African American neighborhoods. We should have access to fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and fresh meat like every other community.”
“For now, Black politicians and members of our community may need to redefine what a legislative win looks like,” Michele Watley, former national African American outreach political director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, told the AFRO. “The ability to block legislation that goes against our interest will likely be as big of a win as passing legislation that aligns with our interest.”