Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), a freshman member of the House who is occupying a seat in a diverse district that includes Harlem, has expressed interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus. The House district Espaillat now represents was held for four decades by legendary Congressman Charlie Rangel. The question of whether Espaillat can join the Congressional Black Caucus was discussed in the CBC’s weekly meeting on February 1st.
Espaillat is the first Dominican-American member of Congress and has defined himself as “a Latino of African descent.”
“There is no conflict,” Espaillat said casually as he walked to his office on February 2nd. “Race is not ethnicity,” he added and generally commented that there are people of African decent all over the world, particularly in Latin America.
As a New York State Senator Espaillat was a member of the united Black and Hispanic Caucus.
But with regard to CBC membership the question is: Is Adriano Espaillat Black or African American? All of the members of the current Congressional Black Caucus have at least one African American parent.
The CBC has no by-laws regarding who can join and who can’t with regard to race of ethnicity or verbiage on what defines African American or Black. When the CBC was established in 1971, such a question of racial identity would have been ridiculous in a nation at the end of the civil rights movement and three years away from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After 400 years of racism written into law and custom, the “one drop rule” has been the de facto unwritten bar for membership.
Rangel, the legendary member Espaillat replaced, was half African American and half Puerto Rican. But the America of the 1970s Rangel came of age in was more racially polarized than the one Espaillat requests CBC membership in present day. The topic of racial identity in a nation with changing demographics leaning black and brown have made the underlying issue more complex. The new voting demographics of the diverse (and gentrified) Harlem played a large role in the Rangel vs. Espaillat rivalry.
Some suspect Espaillat is attempting to suddenly “brand Black” as he is likely to draw an African American challenger in 2018. Espaillat drew four Black challengers in the 2016 primary. That vote split among four Black candidates is blamed by many for a Black candidate not winning Rangel’s old seat.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said on February 2nd that no rule changes that may or may not occur in the future are specifically based on Espaillat’s request. Richmond also added that the Black Caucus may expand using Associate Memberships (an idea championed by CBC founder Rep. John Conyers) to add members who may not be African American.
“We’re looking at associate memberships. The demand is so great that we’e now having conversations. I’ve talked to members about our membership. I’ve talked to senior members who have been here for years who can give me the institutional knowledge and background about expanding the Caucus,” Richmond said on Thursday.
There are rumored to be four or five other members other than Espaillat requesting Black Caucus membership which now stands at 49. Another member, Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-Calif.) who defeated California State Senator Isadore Hall, is said to be requesting CBC membership as well.
Though he was not present for the heart of Wednesday’s discussion on Espaillat at the Black Caucus’ weekly meeting on February 1st, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said, “whatever, we may as well let him in, none of us are truly 100 percent Black.” Several CBC members expressed a “just let him in” view.
That view was a popular one expressed by several other Black Caucus members.