Black Caucus: in the thick of making history

WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation held its 38th Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter Washington Convention Center here Sept. 24-27. The four-day event is one of the largest predominantly Black political gatherings in the country. This year it included 80 panels and seminars on vital issues facing African Americans and the country as a whole. It drew 19,000 participants including elected officials, activists and staff people from unions and other nonprofit organizations.

This year’s conference had a special electricity to it, coming in the midst of the financial crisis and the final weeks of a historic presidential race, with the Democratic candidate and frontrunner, Sen. Barack Obama, one of 43 members of the caucus.

The convention center buzzed with enthusiasm and hopefulness at the prospect of making history and electing the first African American president. Everywhere, people were talking about it and gearing up for the last push to what they hoped would be victory.

Under the theme “Embracing the Promise and Realizing the Vision,” Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, opened the meeting with a withering attack on the Bush administration bailout plan. “This rush to support the $700 billion bailout is the financial equivalent of Bush’s weapons of mass destruction scam,” Morial said. “Why can’t an interim step be taken and the big solution wait until after the new president is elected?”

Most participants were skeptical about the bailout, asking, who will benefit and what about the people who lost their homes? One union official said the credit market meltdown is “a sign of the complete bankruptcy of the right-wing ideology that gave us the greed revolution.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) who was in the thick of bailout negotiations, explained how, after years of protests against redlining, banks and mortgage lenders finally discovered a very lucrative market for homes among Black and Latino working people.

“But what did they do?” she asked. They came up with the subprime mortgages and after they got people to sign up, those mortgages jumped to rates that people could not pay, she said, comparing the practice to “dumping trash in our communities.”

“You mean Jim Crow went into a telephone booth and put on a nice suit, shirt and tie and a pair of Sarah Palin glasses and came out Mr. James Crow?” quipped Morial.

Waters ended by calling for a moratorium on foreclosures, to which the audience erupted in applause.

Franklin Raines, a former head of Fannie Mae, rejected the Republican claim that the crisis is the fault of poor people who took mortgages that they couldn’t afford. “People were fooled,” Raines said. “Low-income mortgage holders did not cause this. This was caused by the greed on Wall Street.”

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts linked the mortgage crisis to the federal government’s desertion of public, affordable housing. This left people vulnerable to subprime scammers who operated under the phony slogan “ownership society,” he said. “These scam artists bamboozled mainly elderly women, especially Black women.”

Frank said the struggle in Congress was over modifying Treasury Secretary Paulson’s plan to favor taxpayers and homeowners. The bailout won’t fix this, Frank said. “Give us a president we can work with and we will get us out of this mess.”

Along with the economic and housing crisis, health care was a major issue here. The Panel on Health Care was focused on Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) comprehensive, single-payer health care bill HR 676. The Congressman remarked that there was a new optimism that his “Medicare for all” bill could pass in the next Congress.

But all the hopes for people-friendly legislation are pinned to the November elections, speaker after speaker said. Morial called for the largest Black voter turnout in history on Nov. 4.

ON Saturday, Obama addressed the conference, the day after his first debate with John McCain, he placed the economic crisis at the door of the Bush White House, which McCain has supported devotedly. In the debate’s 40-minute discussion on the economy, Obama said, McCain never mentioned the impact of this crisis on working and middle-class people. “John McCain just doesn’t get it,” Obama said, calling the crisis “the final verdict on a failed philosophy” embraced by McCain for decades.

Obama linked the crises of joblessness and foreclosures in the Black and Latino communities with the wider problems faced by all working people. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, “Economic justice is inseparable from racial justice.”

“Making sure working people have rising income is the basis for high growth. If you work you should not be poor,” Obama said.

Saluting earlier generations of African Americans for their struggles for change, which made what is happening today possible, Obama cited Conyers and former Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm for initiating the Congressional Black Caucus 40 years ago. He praised Conyers for his work on HR 676. “McCain calls it ‘socialized medicine’ but his health care as a member of the Senate is paid for by the United States Government,” Obama said. “If it is good enough for McCain, why not for everybody?”