As voters express anxiety over President Biden’s handling of the economy, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) gathered in Washington last week to discuss an agenda for the 2024 election.

I attended the conference to learn what this national organization of elected leaders plans to do about the economic stress in the Black community. What follows are some observations on the topics of concern, and on how the CBC can do more to promote structures of economic empowerment.

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To its credit, the conference featured panels that shifted the focus away from non-economic demands, a notable departure from the agenda promoted by civil rights leaders over the summer — the NAACP convention in July, with a primary message on voting rights, and the March on Washington in August “against hate and for civil rights.”

By contrast, the CBC conference took steps to shape an economic message for different levels of concern. An economic message is urgent, in light of the longstanding barriers to prosperity for many Black Americans.

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Even in times of expansion, there has been little change in the fundamentals of an enormous wealth gap, persistent wage gap, disproportionate levels of unemployment, low workforce participation, limited fields of occupation, and a half-century of stunted growth of the middle class, according to The Unfinished March, a 2013 symposium by the Economic Policy Institute.

The CBC will demand racial equity in the private sector.

Foremost, leaders will defend companies that carry out practices of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Corporations with strong DEI policies will earn CBC support as a counterweight to right-wing attempts to demonize racial justice.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the CBC chairman, suggested the need for a congressional resolution to require companies to be transparent about diversity efforts and to publish annual reports on DEI goals and benchmarks. 

“We cannot have Black economic mobility without dealing with the DEI question,” Horsford said. “This is a clarion call to hold the line on DEI in the private sector, in schools, and in government — and to expand the vision for creating true Black wealth.”

Joining in the discussion was Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, the rapper, record producer and television executive. He exhorted the audience to be proactive in the pursuit of an effective economic agenda, saying: “A lot of us are living the illusion of inclusion — but true diversity is about sharing power.”

The CBC will demand inclusive hiring and contracting under the federal infrastructure projects.

The Inflation Reduction Act and the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will invest vast sums in electric battery plants, electric vehicle factories, electric charging stations, the weatherization of public buildings, and the reconstruction of highways, bridges and tunnels — projects that will require hiring and training thousands of skilled workers. 

The CBC wants to guarantee inclusionary practices in a construction industry that historically has excluded Black workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the racial demographic in the construction industry is 60% white, 30% Hispanic, and 5% Black American.

Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, described how the racial culture of the construction industry tends to dovetail with resistant state Republican administrations to thwart equity provisions. Local Black leadership must ensure that language for strong equity standards are included in prime public contracts, he said. 

To justify demands for priority Black recruitment and contracting, Messam suggested using studies of construction industry racial disparities and identifying underserved communities by zip code for outreach priorities. Social media can be used to recruit young men estranged from the job market to the construction trades, he said.  

Tonya Hicks, founder of Power Solutions Inc., an electrical contractor company in Mississippi, said the infrastructure project bidding process should be adjusted to give small, minority-owned companies a better chance to compete. One way is to limit the scale of projects to packages manageable by subcontractors. Another is to reduce the requirement for bond and insurance liability for simple projects.   

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) advocated for inclusion in investment opportunities, suggesting a requirement of 30% equity stakes by Black-owned investment funds in commercial development projects that use infrastructure funding.

Three Ways to Nurture Black Economic Organization

Despite the promotion of an economic message, the CBC can do more to encourage thinking about the formation of internal structures for development. First, for instance, it was silent on the potential benefits of forging cooperative strategies among organizations such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, churches, professional associations, and the self-employed. 

Second, it neglected the feasibility of strategic migration to four Southern states of political and economic promise: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. This strategy aims to recruit middle-class people in politically repugnant states like Texas, Florida, and the Mississippi Delta region to relocate to moderate states. The project is to support the future expansion of Black political and economic influence in multiple states.

The demands for reparations should take into account the full scope of the crimes against a race of people.

Third, the CBC skimmed over the question of a coordinated approach to seeking reparations, one that could build institutional wealth. Rather than individuals seeking restitution, the demands for reparations should take into account the full scope of the crimes against a race of people. Would it not make sense to direct payments to compensatory entities such as development funds and supplemental pension funds established in Black-owned banks?

The omissions aside, the CBC succeeded in putting the cause of economic justice on the political agenda in 2024. In the days ahead, its two senators and 54 House members would do well to reflect on the insights of the late social psychologist Amos Wilson: 

In his 1998 study, “Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for the Twenty-First Century,” Wilson wrote that “Black politics and activism without the ownership of and control over primary forms and bases of power — such as property, wealth, and organization — is the recipe for Black political and non-political powerlessness.”

Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” His forthcoming study, “Five Hundred Years of Black Self Governance,” is under contract with Louisiana State University Press. A version of the commentary was published in The Messenger.