It’s the question bound to come up when an unarmed black person gets gunned down, choked or beaten by a power-tripping white cop with a loose trigger: What are black politicians gonna do about it?
And, to the consternation of folks asking, the answer is not as black and white as they’d like it.
Although protest continues on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., activists look to African-American elected officials for some perspective. “Will the Congressional Black Caucus hold a press conference and push for justice on this string of unarmed black folks killed by cops?” groused veteran hip-hop commentator Davey D. Good question. And he teased it with an Operation Ghetto Storm analysis, exposing the “extrajudicial killing of 313 black people by police, security guards and vigilantes.”
Unfortunately, Congress is on a five-week recess. That includes the 43 black members who don’t reconvene in Washington, D.C., until their annual late-September CBC Foundation extravaganza (which many disgruntled “revolutionaries” love to slam but end up attending anyway). When Congress goes on break, so does the rest of Washington—along with the President Barack Obama, vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, who quickly issued a statement on the death of beloved comedian actor Robin Williams but who took near three days before public “reflection” on events sparked by the death of a random college-bound black teen.
CBC members were tight-lipped over the weekend as smoke started rising from the working-class St. Louis suburb. A joint statement finally emerged on Monday from CBC Chair Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Mound City-area Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), publicly nudging the Justice Department to probe the Michael Brown incident—which it has. But updates from @OfficialCBC and the CBC’s website didn’t get going until a spate of tweets later the same day. If you looked to Clay’s Twitter timeline for real-time assessment, from the tone of the tweets, you’d think he was in another district than the one he represents—right where Ferguson is.
Meanwhile, the 600-plus-strong National Black Caucus of State Legislators hasn’t yet huddled or issued a statement. But individually, black state legislators, like Missouri Rep. Clem Smith (D-St. Louis), are attempting something. “The leadership in Ferguson doesn’t reflect [the racial composition] of the city,” Smith told The Root. “This is where political power comes in, where we can elect a board that’s responsive to [black residents’] needs.”
Clay’s cautious stance could be politically problematic for him down the road, should St. Louis 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French decide to capitalize. French went from 4,000 Twitter followers on Saturday to now more than 32,000 as he’s street-credded himself with far more comprehensive coverage of events in Ferguson.
Expectations differ from political realities. Justice-seeking black constituents demand commandolike advocacy in the form of G.I. Joe-like black politicians ready to battle heavily armed racist institutions.
But it’s not that easy. Black Congressional members, for example, have to fend off existential threats from gerrymandering Republican state legislatures diluting black political power. African-American state and local politicians are forced to forge winning “coalitions” of voters, including white voters—and powerful police unions that make influential endorsements.
Democratic-aligned black politicos must also navigate racially charged waters or risk tipping the scales further against their weakened party during elections. White conservative “tough on crime” voters siding with pro-police GOP candidates are clearly more energized than voters of color. And November is bleak enough electorally for Democrats. Being too strong on police brutality fuels Republican narratives of a “war on whites.”
So black politicians are likely doing all they can do—or, at least, all they think they can do. They’re monitoring the situation, conducting official oversight and putting pressure on government agencies to act. “It’s important we redouble our efforts to respond to police violence,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) carefully told The Root. “[But] the most important thing we can do is to make certain the Department of Justice enforces [applicable] civil rights statutes.”
Jeffries, dealing with the killing of Eric Garner last month, concedes that “there’s an epidemic of police violence.” Jeffries and several colleagues in New York's congressional delegation have called a press conference for Thursday, to call for federal action in the Garner case, but even he will tell you he can’t speak for the whole CBC. Plus, he’s comfortably situated in New York’s 8th Congressional District, where the population is overwhelmingly black and Latino. Clay doesn’t have that luxury in a gerrymandered 47 percent white district that’s forced him to tread softly. Many modern black politicians are not your neighborhood preacher or soapbox civil rights organizer. Fifty years since the Voting Rights Act, they are maturing into skilled elected officials who must get re-elected—at whatever political cost.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.