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MUHAMMAD: The CBC and the New Corporate 'Chitlin' Circuit'

Askia Muhammad | 9/25/2013, 3 p.m.
Askia Muhammad

Even the prospect of an address from President Barack Obama could not rescue the Annual Legislative Week sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation from its new status as just another gig on the modern, now-corporate “Chitlin' Circuit.”

The original “chitlin' circuit” was a string of night clubs and theaters throughout the East, South, and upper Mid-West which allowed Black musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform during the age of racial segregation.

The modern circuit is mostly a summer tour whose reigning queen is the Essence Festival, and which includes the annual conventions of all the major Civil Rights organizations. Major corporations which enjoy substantial support from Black consumers attend these events with bells on. This summer circuit is not to be confused with Black History Month in February, the other full-employment-for-Black-speakers-season.

The corporate titans give away literature and trinkets from booths in the event expo halls at all the events, and of course their executives are present, maintaining lavish suites whose addresses are coveted by meeting attendees, because parties, parties, and more parties are held in those suites at the conclusion of each day’s “official” business. And of course they peruse the crop of eager attendees for possible new employees.

Eager entrepreneurs, armed with business cards and polished proposals stalk the corridors hoping to make a favorable impression during impromptu encounters with government and corporate agents.

In his 19 minute speech at this year’s CBC dinner Sept. 21, the President blasted congressional Republicans for risking a government shutdown and a credit default in an effort to defend his health care plan, infusing a little adrenalin into an otherwise lackluster four-day conference.

“It is time for these folks to stop governing by crisis,” and focus on “what really matters,” Pres. Obama said at the CBC Foundation Phoenix Awards Dinner. As for the GOP plans to defund health care, nuh-uh he said, wanting to speak “as clearly as I can — it’s not going to happen.”

The President repeated that he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling, saying the country is obligated to pay its bills. He also spoke about civil rights, health care, education, college costs, public safety, and economic opportunity. Whew.

This year was the 43rd annual CBC event. The tradition began as simply a weekend of events held at a Washington hotel, ending with a banquet Saturday night. Then the event grew bigger—outgrowing the hotel—and the issues confronting Black America grew more urgent, and so the schedule expanded. Workshops and forums were held Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the Washington Convention Center.

Soon, the congressional ethics police advised the CBC that the event should be held under the umbrella of a foundation, which permitted the elected officials to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without potentially running afoul of the law.

To be sure, the CBC foundation provides many worthwhile services, like scholarships and fellowships and internships. And the CBC is still the “conscience of the Congress.” But in today’s toxic political environment where a handful of recalcitrant, ultra-conservative, kamikaze-like, Tea Party Republicans—no larger in number than the CBC—has cowered the House GOP leadership into submission to its nihilistic will, then who needs a conscience, when the House majority itself seems bent on destruction of the government itself, as we have known it.

As the CBC membership and its annual conference grew into a nearly week-long conference, the occasion became a magnet for all manor of Black organizations to hold their board meetings in D.C. at the same time, so their leaders would have an excuse for being in Washington at the time of the CBC conference.

But somehow, the sameness of it all, the corporate-ness of it all turned one of the most important events on the African American calendar into just another snore. This year the Wednesday schedule was no schedule at all, save for a press conference at which the CBC Foundation pledged to give five Black banks deposits of $1 million each.

This brings us to the place where the CBC Annual Legislative Conference has devolved into. It’s just another snore, just another gig on the modern-day corporate Chitlin' Circuit, masquerading as an event of real importance, where matters of real consequence are debated and where solutions to the world’s weighty problems are set into motion by people who are really concerned about substance rather than style.