The head of the Congressional Black Caucus said there is nothing stopping incoming members who identify as both African American and Latino from joining the Black and Hispanic caucuses — an issue that’s flared up recently as a younger candidate challenged the perceived status quo.
The comments, from CBC Chair Karen Bass on Wednesday, come after Democratic candidate Ritchie Torres blasted the group in an op-ed over the weekend for seemingly denying membership to lawmakers who identify as both Black and Latino.
“Since the ‘either-or’ rule is a policy of the Congressional Black Caucus, I have a personal plea to make to my future colleagues there: Expecting Afro-Latinos like myself to be politically alienated from our own blackness — at a time when Black Lives Matter has become the rallying cry of a racially awakened nation— is the cruelest of ironies,” Torres wrote.
But during a panel on Black and brown social movements, hosted by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative on Wednesday, Bass told POLITICO that there is no such policy.
“It’s not in our bylaws,” Bass said. “It has been a tradition mainly because it is something that we haven’t faced before. ... So, it is absolutely something we are going to take up and figure out how we deal with.”
If the CBC welcomes Torres, a candidate in New York’s 15th Congressional District, while allowing him to also maintain membership in the Hispanic Caucus, it would be a notable shift within the Democratic Caucus. While the issue of dual membership hasn’t come up often in the past, when it did arise, older Black members privately encouraged incoming lawmakers of color to pick one caucus over the other, according to several members and aides.
The openness to allowing Torres to join the CBC also illustrates the shifting dynamics within the storied 50-year caucus, where generational and ideological differences are starting to become more prominent as the group leads on efforts to fight racial injustice amid a nationwide reckoning over police brutality this summer.
Bass said she spoke to Torres on Wednesday morning and is scheduled to have a Zoom call with him this weekend. Torres’ decision to sharply criticize the CBC publicly without first reaching out to members of the group privately has rankled several Black lawmakers and could have lasting implications for how he is welcomed within the group.
“We will have to have a discussion about the article that Ritchie Torres wrote about the Black Caucus, because I'm sure it was not perceived well by members of the caucus,” Bass said later in an interview. “He did not take the opportunity to reach out to the chair of the caucus to see whether he would be welcomed or not.”
Torres’ campaign declined to make him available for an interview. In a statement for this article, Torres did not address Bass’ criticism that he aired grievances publicly before speaking to her but said he respects the CBC.
"I have the highest respect for Rep. Karen Bass and the Congressional Black Caucus — which is iconic — and look forward to addressing any concerns they have internally with her and my future colleagues,” Torres said.
Bass said that in 2018, incoming New York Rep. Antonio Delgado — who identifies as Latino and Black — could have joined both caucuses. “Nothing would have prevented him from being members of both caucus, because there was nothing written that says that you can't,” Bass said.
While there is no bylaw denying Afro-Latinos membership in the CBC, as Bass pointed out, it has long been considered an unwritten policy that the caucus abides by, according to several lawmakers and aides familiar with the inner-workings of the group.
The issue of dual-membership last flared up in 2017 when then-freshman Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who identifies as a Latino of African descent, tried to join the CBC. Espaillat, the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, was met with resistance from some Black lawmakers because of his membership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“Even though our agendas are typically parallel, occasionally they are not. So it may be problematic if someone wants to belong to two ethnic caucuses,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former chair of the CBC, said at the time.
Bass told POLITICO, “There was a specific situation that was more important than [Espaillat’s] ethnic background” that prevented him from joining the Black Caucus. “It was a specific conflict and I'm not going to talk about it.”
Espaillat’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. But at the time, some CBC members were still angry that Espaillat challenged former Rep. Charles Rangel — a founding member of the Black Caucus — in 2012 and 2014.
Black lawmakers and aides have privately said the issue of being a member of both groups could crop up when the CBC discusses political issues, particularly about Black lawmakers who may represent districts that have a majority of Latino voters and could be discussing how to fend off a primary challenge.
But the membership issue seems only to apply to lawmakers who want to join both the CBC and the CHC. Four lawmakers — including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) — are in both the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Black Caucus.
Torres, who is all but guaranteed to win his race in November, argued “the wall of separation between the CBC and CHC ignores the realities of racial identity” in the op-ed and an earlier interview with Newsweek, which first reported on his desire to join both groups.
The political landscape has shifted dramatically since Espaillat’s attempt in 2017 to join both caucuses. A younger, more diverse group of progressive lawmakers stormed the Capitol in 2018 and has leveraged activists tactics at times to push its party's leaders.
And progressive Black and brown challengers to incumbent Democrats haven’t been afraid to openly question the CBC’s policies — a stark change from past protocol for newcomers — including the group’s decision to endorse white incumbents over Black primary challengers.
The CBC endorsed another candidate in Torres’ race, Michael Blake, a member of the state Assembly who is also Black. Torres hasn’t been declared the winner in the 12-person primary but remains far ahead of Blake and other candidates as the state continues counting absentee ballots nearly a month after election.
And the group backed longtime Rep. Eliot Engel, who is white, over his progressive challenger, Jamaal Bowman, who is Black, in New York’s 16th District. Bowman prevailed.
Bass defended the CBC’s decision to support Engel despite fierce criticism from progressives. And while Bass acknowledged the shifting dynamics within the caucus, she also issued a warning of sorts.
“I consider it my job and my honor and my responsibility to welcome them to try to bring them in and to try to show them how they can be activists, agitating and be productive within the body,” Bass said.
“We have a particular culture and you have to be careful otherwise you will marginalize yourself and I don’t want to see that happen.”