Yesterday, Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume looked back on his two years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and saw a period of both progress and misunderstandings.
"Many still see the Congressional Black Caucus as some wide-eyed, crazy, pinko, Communist, liberal, twisted group that cannot think for itself and that's out of step with everyone else," he said amid laughter and applause. "How cynical. How misguided."
Mr. Mfume, whose term as chairman expires soon, was delivering a legislative state-of-black-America address at the opening of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference in Washington. He was arguing that the 40-member caucus has helped shape the nation's agenda.
The agenda that the 7th District Democrat outlined yesterday is not radical at all. Actually, it is an agenda that would resonate with most Americans, I believe.
He described how the "horror of crime has gripped citizens in terror and changed the way we live in a real and sobering way." He talked about unemployment and health care reform, and the need for a clear and consistent foreign policy. He returned again and again to economic development.
"We look at business and we see jobs and prosperity and a stable middle class," Mr. Mfume said. "We see a chance to raise children with dignity and provide them with a comfortable home and good health care and the kind of parental affection that comes with being financially secure."
Finally, he spoke of beliefs: "The issue of values cannot be left out of any debate -- any commitment to change -- because it is too very, very important," Mr. Mfume said. "What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai was not the '10 Suggestions,' but rather a blueprint for life.
"Most of us were raised to work hard, play by the rules, love our country and cherish our faith," Mr. Mfume continued. "We were taught a healthy respect for the elderly; we were charged to cherish their wisdom and seek their counsel. We were taught to appreciate that hard work has its rewards; that there is nothing wrong with an eight-hour day, if in fact we do what we do because we like it and if we feel a sense of value when we go home at night."
The congressman's remarks are worth repeating because I believe they describe the goals, values and priorities of mainstream black America -- though black voters often are perceived as being as wide-eyed, crazy, pinko, Communist, liberal, and twisted a group as the CBC. This is particularly true after the stunning primary victory of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry Tuesday. Mr. Barry, who was convicted and imprisoned for using crack cocaine, is poised to regain the office because of overwhelming support from the District's predominantly black voters.
Mr. Barry won his primary the old fashioned way. He earned it. He reached out to voters who often are overlooked. He explained the issues in a way that they could relate to. There is nothing particularly bizarre about that.
But if so many blacks have mainstream values, why do black politics so often seem to digress?
While much of mainstream America has embraced a "cage 'em and fry 'em" response to crime and violence, black Americans generally prefer to address the causes. Said Mfume: "No amount of warehousing prisoners is going to solve the problem until we address the root causes of crime. . . . The long-term solution is that we as a nation need to find jobs for the unemployed, provide skills and a quality education. The best social program is a job."
And while some politicians seek punitive measures to force family values, the black caucus seeks a more gentle approach. As Mr. Mfume put it yesterday, those people who have made it have an obligation "to reach out and embrace the next generation; show them that values are important; that family structure ought to be nurtured."
Frankly, I believe the two mainstreams are separated by mutual ignorance; by the perception of difference rather than by reality. The theme of Mr. Mfume's "state of" address yesterday was succinct: The mainstream debate needs to be colorized; the white majority should realize that the black majority wants the same things.