We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era

By Robert C. Smith; Ronald W. Walters | Go to book overview

8
Blacks in Congressional Decision Making:
Neglect and Invisibility on
Social and Economic Reform

In the terminology of the modified systems model developed in Chapter 1, the response of the system in the last twenty-five years to the black demand for civil rights has been substantive in terms of policies and programs that to some extent deal with problems of discrimination in employment, voting and housing. The response to the demand for full employment may be characterized as symbolic. The Humphrey‐ Hawkins Act provided an image or legislative symbol of change but had no effect on the unemployment situation in black America. In this chapter I examine the broader "black" agenda of social and economic reform as embodied in a series of alternative budgets debated in the House since 1981. 1 In systems terminology, the output or response to this broader reform agenda is best characterized as neglect—essentially, acting as if there was no demand, no input. The Congressional Black Caucus's budgets have been invisible, ignored by the Congress and the national media, leaving black members of the House frustrated, and isolated from the mainstream of American politics.

In another sense, however, the Caucus's budgets themselves may be seen as symbolic inputs or demands. While the system's response to the black demand for full employment was symbolic, the demand itself was substantive. Black leaders sincerely believed, perhaps naively, that a legislative means could be found to guarantee a job to all persons willing and able to work. With the alternative budgets, this is not the case. No member of the Caucus thought that there was a realistic chance to enact their alternative budgets. Edelman, the leading student of symbolic politics in the United States, reminds us that "Basic to the recognition of symbolic forms in the political process is a distinction between politics as a spectator sport and political activity as utilized by organized groups to get quite specific, tangible benefit for themselves."2 In pressing for civil rights and full employment legislation blacks were seeking concrete, specific benefits for the group. By contrast, the budget

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