Black Caucus members undecided about supporting Booker or Harris
The Congressional Black Caucus has a dilemma to resolve. With two major black candidates running for president, whom do the caucus's members support? Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are both vying for the coveted CBC endorsement, and both candidates have been working to cement allies.
Or does the CBC give its backing to an old hand like Joe Biden?
There are several powerful Democratic lawmakers from pivotal primary states who could give a significant boost to either candidate.
African-American and minority voters are poised to play an outsize role in determining the Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump next year. In addition to their clout on Capitol Hill, CBC members can be powerful surrogates in their home states – able to deliver financial and organizational support from union heads, state party chairs and other elected officials.
That means CBC member endorsements could be especially valuable in what already is shaping up to be a crowded primary.
"Issues that are important to African-Americans are going to be at the forefront" of the Democratic primary, said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a CBC member who received a call from Harris before she declared her candidacy. "Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as a result, are going to be instrumental for all the candidates in talking about issues of concern."
Some CBC members are excited about Harris' candidacy, though her background as a prosecutor has prompted doubts among certain African-American voters.
Before she formally announced her bid last week, Harris sought endorsements from CBC lawmakers in Georgia, Ohio and Michigan.
And she appeared last weekend in South Carolina with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, possibly the biggest prize among CBC members. Before announcing her candidacy, Harris sat down with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, for an hour in his Capitol Hill office. Harris did not ask for his endorsement during the meeting, according to the veteran lawmaker.
For his part, Booker has had a long and close relationship with CBC members – and he's reached out to a number of them ahead of his expected announcement.
Yet questions over Booker's White House ambitions don't present the only challenge for CBC members. Some are waiting for home-state pols to make their intentions known about whether they'll run for president. And Biden is viewed as a candidate who can win the Midwestern states that Hillary Clinton lost, a big concern for Democrats.
One of the unspoken issues that may play a role in the decision of CBC members is "colorism." Any pundit who brings up the issue of who is "blacker" will be hysterically accused of racism.
In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Georgia called skin color distinction "a well-kept secret" in black communities. "The hue of one's skin," they wrote, "tends to have a psychological effect on the self-esteem of African-Americans."
Yet they also noted that existing research on the relationship between skin color and self-esteem didn't even exist. Fear of being perceived as a race traitor continues to make the topic taboo in the United States – in a way which exceeds that in places like India or Japan.
Kamala Harris was born to a Tamil mother and Jamaican father. Her skin tone is much lighter than Cory Booker's. Does this give her an unconscious advantage among black politicians and the black electorate? (There may also be issues with Harris being the daughter of a Caribbean black, a background resented by many in the black community.)
It would be an interesting subject to explore – if one could do so without the hysteria it would generate. Two competent, qualified senators who happen to be black are running for president, and the attitudes of black voters toward the shade of skin color for both candidates is considered off limits to discuss.
Just who is it that's afraid to talk about race in America?