More than the conscience of the Congress –G. K. Butterfield (NC-01), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus

Representative G. K. Butterfield (NC-01), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus for the 114th Congress

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Makes Improving the Quality of Life for African Americans a Priority

An Interview with Representative G. K. Butterfield (NC-01),
Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus for the 114th Congress

By Lynn K. Jenkins

“Black America is in a state of crisis” according to Congressman G. K. Butterfield(NC-01), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). “Statistics tell a story and the current state of the African American community is not good and we’ve got to have all hands on deck to find solutions. If we continue down the path that we have seen for the last 20 or 30 years, the disparities facing African Americans is only going to get wider, and the challenges will only persevere. There comes a time where we just have to, as my good friend and colleague Congressman John Lewis says, ‘show up and show out.’ The Congressional Black Caucus brings a diverse set of experiences and viewpoints to tackle the unique challenges that the African American community faces. We are action oriented and that is my background.”  A voting rights lawyer by profession, and former judge, Congressman Butterfield came out of the civil rights movement. “And so, action is my methodology for change. First, try to negotiate. If negotiation doesn’t work you move into direct action. And if that doesn’t work you move into, even, civil disobedience. I don’t rule that out. There are not many groups in the United States who are suited to address this crisis and the CBC is leading among entities that can address it. Of course we have allies out there, from the NAACP, to Action Network, to Operation Push.   But at the end of the day, we are the legislatures.  No one can legislate but us. As much as I love our civil rights friends that we talk to every day, they can’t cast a vote, nor can they introduce a bill. We can walk the floor of the House any day that we choose and make a speech and it will be heard by millions of people. So, we have what some people would call the bully pulpit. And so, we have an enormous burden on us to speak out and legislate and create national conversation on racial inequality. And, then take action.  We’ve got to get results. We’re not naïve enough not to think that we are going to solve every problem in the world within two years. But we’ve got to move the needle in the right direction.” The CBC, a substantial mission focused caucus that has been around since 1971, has a primary focus of moving the needle forward in the African American community to improve the quality of life. Chairman Butterfield often says, “We are the Black Caucus. We are not here to lead the advocacy for the Hispanics, Asians, Island Pacificers, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Transsexual, or Women’s interests. However, the CBC will help other interests “when and where we can help.” The CBC initially began with 13 members and has grown into its current 46 members of Congress, the largest membership during its history which includes 45 Democrats, one Republican; one United States Senator, and 45 House Representatives. Congressman Butterfield proudly states that, “we have 20 female CBC members and Shirley Chisholm would have been very proud of this.”

During the 114th Congress, the priorities of the CBC include:  eliminating persistent poverty, reforming criminal justice reform, restoring the Voting Rights Act (VRA), creating jobs, decreasing the African American unemployment rate, and making education more accessible and affordable for our students, and increasing diversity in corporate America starting with the technology industry. Let’s take a look at a few of the statistics driving the CBC actions this legislative session.

According to CBC Chairman Butterfield, “one out of 4 African American families lives in poverty, one out of 3 minority children lives in poverty, and the wealth gap is astronomical. For every $100 a white family has in wealth, the African American family has six dollars. So, that’s a 6 to 100 ratio, and that’s not good.”

Earlier this year, the CBC in coordination with Joint Economic Committee (JEC) Democrats, released a report detailing the severity of economic disparities of African Americans. The report shed light on a range of inequities that have persisted in the African American community for generations. Among its findings, the report revealed that Blacks continue to face high rates of poverty, unemployment and long-term unemployment as well as significantly lower incomes and slower wealth accumulation.

Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Joins House & Senate Democrats to Urge House GOP to Restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) Photo Patricia McDougall
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Joins House & Senate Democrats to Urge House GOP to Restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA)
Photo Patricia McDougall

“The African American unemployment rate continues to be double the white unemployment rate, and that  just didn’t start with the recession. The unemployment disparity and the unemployment crisis have been continuing for more than 50 years. It’s not a recent phenomenon. We are also talking about not only unemployment but underemployment which is a big problem in the African American community as well. The individuals who are underemployed don’t get counted. They make the minimum wage, they work 20 to 25 hours a week and are counted as employed, but they live in poverty.”

Criminal Justice: “We’ve been consumed with criminal justice reform and we’ve got to ’legislate’ some changes. We have a group of Republicans that are working with us in crafting criminal justice reform; some unlikely partners. They may have political motives, but that’s okay as long as we can get the job done.  The whole question of mandatory minimum sentences, the over-incarceration of African American citizens in penal institutions, both at the state and federal levels, are just unacceptable. And it’s going to be a real challenge because we are mostly democrats and our party is not in control of the agenda. Republicans are in leadership this Congress. Our options are to be quiet and leave it alone or advocate and work to negotiate with our Republican colleagues.”

On the subject of expungements, “We’ve got to find ways to not charge people with petty crimes that are likely not even on the radar of civil society. For petty crimes and non-violent offenses, we’ve got to find ways to divert those cases away from the penal institution, to decriminalize some things. And we’ve got some Republicans who are trying to work with us on that. Too many of our young black males drop out of school at 16 years old. They go out, get in trouble, and get overcharged by the police.  There is a tendency for some police agencies to overcharge or to ask the court system to overcharge a defendant. And many times, the magistrates or whoever is in the front end of the criminal justice system will just go ahead and issue a warrant for whatever the police ask for. I was a Judge. I saw it.  Young people are getting overcharged, and not just African Americans, but Whites as well as Latinos. And the police have this belief that if they overcharge, that when the case comes to court that they have something to negotiate with, that they can drop the charges that are extra. There is a tendency for some police agencies to overcharge or to ask the court system to overcharge a defendant. This goes on in most states, if not all states throughout the country. ” Chairman  Butterfield goes on to explain how states spend thousands of dollars prosecuting youth charged with a simple possession of marijuana. In another scenario, “the police may put on his blue light, stop a car, and the car may go a half a block before it stops, the police may end up charging the young offender with alluding arrest. That’s not alluding arrest. But the officers will not only charge the young person with the drugs they find in the car, but with alluding arrest and in some states, that’s a felony.  When they get to court, they say okay, we’ll drop the alluding arrest if you plead guilty to the drugs.” Congressman Butterfield emphasized they’ve got to change this.

While on the topic of deadly force and police brutality, Chairman Butterfield emphasizes that, “body cameras would be a good tool to use to prevent police abuses.” Diversity training and better training on what the Constitution requires were two other area requiring attention. “The Constitution does not empower a law enforcement officer to shoot first and to ask questions later. Deadly force should be a very last resort. But, sadly, too many officers, when faced with an uncomfortable situation, are using deadly force. And, police officers should be held accountable for that. And we need to look at ways at how we investigate police conduct. Should the agency itself investigate its own officers or should the Attorney General send in a team to do an evaluation? We think the FBI should conduct investigations anytime there is an allegation of a shooting; not just a killing, but a shooting of a citizen by a police officer.”

“Voting Rights continues to be a problem. States are working every day to find ways to reduce minority participation in the electoral process and the reason for it is very simple. Minorities tend to gravitate towards the Democratic Party. And by definition, if you reduce the number of minorities that vote, then that benefits the Republican Party.  It’s very fundamental. So, they are trying to find very subtle ways to chip away at voting rights that will result in diminishing minority voter participation. And when minority voter participation diminishes, then there’s a corresponding increase in influence among Republicans. So, they are doing that with voter ID. “We are going to look at restoring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That continues to be a priority. Years ago I litigated voter rights cases. Section 5 has been rendered impotent because of the June 25 2013 Supreme Court Decision. And it is impotent and will remain impotent and unenforceable until Section 4 can be modified. Section 4 will define which states and which counties within states are subject to preclearance. And until Congress passes Section 4 , Section 5 will have no meaning and there is no political appetite on the part of Congress, as I see it right now, for the conference to even take up the question of Section 4. We’ve got a handful of Republicans who say they are with us and I believe them.  But, whether we will legislatively fix Section 4, remains to be seen.

On the issue of poverty: “We’ve got to start targeting funding to our country’s persistent poverty counties. That’s another major priority for the CBC. We call it 10-20-30. That is, we have more than 400 counties in the U.S. that have poverty rates of 20% or more. And this has existed for more than 30 years, or at least for the last three censuses.  And six of those counties are in my congressional district. And the interesting part about that is that two-thirds of those counties are represented by Republicans. So, it seems to me that it would be reasonable for Republican members of the House and Senate to work with us in trying to target funding. And that’s how we got the 10-20-30. The 20/30 is 20% poverty 30 years or more. But we want to target 10% of federal dollars of federal expenditures from an agency, target 10% into those counties. We’ve talked to the President about it, on two occasions, talked to the Vice President on two occasions, about it, talked to Paul Ryan about it, and other Republican leaders about it, including Steve Scalise, and so we are getting ready to get into the budget process and want to make sure we are heard during the process. The 10-20-30 plan doesn’t just help African Americans, it helps poor white communities represented by Republicans as well.”

“We cannot sit back and allow the destruction of public education and the legacy of our historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
“We cannot sit back and allow the destruction of public education and the legacy of our historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)

Education: “We cannot sit back and allow the destruction of public education and the legacy of our historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to occur on our watch. Those two things are different. Republicans do not support the idea of federal support for public education. They have always said that is a state function, not a federal function. And so the Tea Party and their friends have tried to defund programs that benefit public education. And, specifically public education in low income communities. I don’t understand that. But there is a serious effort on the part of the Tea Party Republicans to defund federal support for public education. And that will devastate communities.  And, moving to vouchers or to charter school doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates the problem.  So we are dealing everyday with trying to get more funding for public schools. HBCUs, that’s a little different situation. We have 105 HBCUs in this country, 13 of those are community colleges, most of these schools have been around since the 1860s and 1870’s, a few came along a little later. These schools are in a fight for their life. And they are fighting for their life because of four or five factors. First of all, formerly, segregated white institutions are now competing for black students. Ole Miss, University of Alabama, all of the deep south schools that used to close their doors to African Americans are now actively recruiting African Americans to come to their campus, and not just to play sports, that’s part of it. But they are succeeding. And so, many of our talented students are not going to HBCUs, they are opting to go to the majority institutions. And certainly they have a right to do that. We fought to get them that right. But the result is that HBCUs are losing enrollment. And so, those who tend to gravitate to HBCUs have a low academic performance. And so the HBCUs have to take these students where they are when they walk through the door and have to work with them and educate them and get them to be a college graduate. And that requires more resources, more faculty time, it requires everything that you can imagine to give that student the proper college experience. And schools don’t have resources to do that. Pell Grants have been cut back. Summer Pell has been eliminated and that’s causing a strain because kids don’t have Pell Grants that they can use at the same level they had five years ago to go to school. The parent plus loans are under attack, and the Obama administration, much to our chagrin, came up with this idea that parents must be credit worthy in order to get a loan for a child to go to college. And many parents have bad credit, for various reasons, and are not able to get the credit. So we fought the administration, sufficiently, so now they’ve changed the rules and parent plus is in better condition than it was a year ago. And there are some schools that don’t have the money to hire the best administrators. They can’t pay 200K or 300K for a chief  financial officer or a comptroller. They have to pay 80K or 90K for a position that typically pays 200K. And then we have a lot of students that just don’t graduate. For one reason or another, they do one or two years and they just don’t graduate. And then we have the problem of For-Profit colleges. Not only are the formerly white institutions competing for Black students, the For Profit colleges are competing and they are making some very attractive offers to students that appears to be significant.  But once the student gets in, they find out it’s nothing but distance learning. And it doesn’t give the student the credentials that they really need to compete in the workplace. But when they finish the curriculum, they are 40K or 60K in debt. When you pile all this on HBCUs, they are at the breaking point. And a lot of States-supported HBCUs are challenged because a lot of the States are cutting back on funding. So, our HBCUs are in crisis and we are working on that every day.

Members of the CBC commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday
Members of the CBC commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Corporate America: Nearly 200 of the Fortune 500 companies have no African Americans on their boards. And, if you were to drill down and look at their senior management, many of the senior managers are non-African American.  And, also the workforce of many of these companies is not reflective of the African American community. These corporations have foundations. These foundations give back to the communities. Many of these corporate foundations are not endowing the communities that make their profits.  We’ve got to make sure that the companies that derive their profits from the African American community reinvest in the African American community. So, we’re hoping to do a scorecard to put a spotlight on this problem”. The CBC wants to see that companies like Walmart and McDonalds are willing to disclose their data, voluntarily.  “Many companies don’t want to give it up. Stay tuned, that’s going to be a big deal. We’re not going to solve the problem in two years, but at least that’s where we’re going to start.” On the topic of corporate responsibility to increasing employment, the CBC Chairman said the CBC would consider the creation of corporate incentives, increasing wages to workers and incentivizing manufacturing in the USA as an alternative to outsourcing.

“The Congressional Black Caucus  has got a lot of work in front of us so I have employed four professional staff who work together very well and we are working as a team.  At the end of the day, this is going to be the best CBC administration, I believe, in the history of the CBC.  I would think whoever follows me would do better than I have done. Because I think that each one of us builds upon the preceding administration. So, I’m excited about the job, and I’ve got the energy for it, the passion, the historical perspective, the experience of the civil rights movement and beyond, and I just want to bring all of these experiences together and try to move the CBC forward. That’s my challenge. That’s where we are today.”