LEGISLATURE

Wisconsin's Black and Latino Caucus to open doors to white legislators

2013-12-30T06:00:00Z Wisconsin's Black and Latino Caucus to open doors to white legislatorsMATTHEW DeFOUR | Wisconsin State Journal | mdefour@madison.com | 608-252-6144 madison.com

Wisconsin now has 12 legislative districts where a majority of constituents are racial or ethnic minorities, and yet just six are represented by minority legislators.

Last session, before redistricting, there were 10 minority-majority districts, eight of which were represented by minority legislators.

That partly explains why this year, for the first time, the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus is inviting white lawmakers who represent minority-majority districts to participate in meetings, though it’s stopping short of granting them full membership with the ability to vote on actions the group might take.

There’s also discussion among the traditionally Democratic group about whether Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Franklin, whose district is 85 percent white, should be invited.

Including Rodriguez, the seven minority legislators are the fewest the state has had since 1992.

“I think that I, along with other people, see an opportunity,” said caucus chairman and freshman Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee. “Our numbers may not be that large. A lot of our effectiveness is going to be the help of our other partners and advocacy groups in the community.”

The caucus met for the first time this session in October when members discussed a need to be more inclusive and focus on consensus building. Barnes said the group plans to focus on issues affecting minority communities across the state — high unemployment, disproportionate incarceration rates, voting rights and education achievement gaps.

The caucus plans to hold monthly meetings, including several in different minority neighborhoods, rather than exclusively in the Capitol.

At its next meeting the caucus also will continue to discuss membership issues, including whether to invite Rodriguez, the third Latino member and the first Republican Latina to serve in the Legislature.

Rodriguez, whose office didn’t respond to a request for comment, has been an advocate for private school vouchers, a topic that has divided Milwaukee’s minority community. Barnes himself unseated incumbent Rep. Jason Fields, a Democrat and voucher supporter.

The district represented by Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, was majority white when he was elected in 2005. But it is now two-thirds minority, and Kessler, who is white, said he is pleased the caucus is opening its doors to white lawmakers. He said he plans to be an active participant.

“The election of President Obama has changed the nature of what representatives do,” Kessler said. “That has made the process much more race neutral.”

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, a former caucus chairwoman, did not take part in the October meeting and was surprised that the caucus planned to allow white legislators to participate.

“People who are black, Republicans or Democrats, come to the black caucus of state legislators,” Taylor said. “It’s not based on their district, it’s based on their race.”

Like Wisconsin, other states’ black caucuses include Latino and other minority membership. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which lists the Wisconsin Black and Latino Caucus as an affiliate, describes its membership as “over 600 African American state legislators.” The organization’s offices were closed last week, so it couldn’t be determined how many other state caucuses allow participation by white legislators.

Separate national organizations exist for Latino legislators, such as Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Black Caucus became the Black and Hispanic Caucus when Zamarripa’s predecessor, Rep. Pedro Colon, joined. Zamarripa asked to change the name to the Black and Latino Caucus.

Zamarripa said she would welcome inviting Rodriguez to join the caucus, even though their ideological views differ.

“It’s important for us to bring in diversity from (around) the state,” Zamarripa said.

But Barnes was hesitant to endorse inviting Rodriguez into the caucus, adding, “That’s still a conversation that needs to take place.”

The congressional and state legislative black caucuses first formed in the 1970s as districts were redrawn with the goal of increasing minority representation.

Their original mission was to draw attention to issues in urban ghettos, but they also developed as race-based associations, said David Canon, a UW-Madison political science professor and expert on race politics.

In the 1990s, the Congressional Black Caucus was criticized for booting Rep. Gary Franks, a black Republican from Connecticut, after labeling him a mole for the GOP. In 2007, the caucus was criticized again for affirming it would include only black members after Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, the state’s first Jewish representative who represented a majority black district, tried to become a member.

Barnes acknowledged if Wisconsin’s Black and Latino Caucus gave white legislators from minority-majority districts the ability to vote on caucus matters, it could diminish the voice of minority members. But he also sees the caucus representing the “peoples of the black community” rather than exclusively black people.

“For us, it’s more the community that’s represented,” Barnes said. “I’m not the biggest fan of identity politics. … Personally I would love to see more people of color in the Legislature, just because it’s a better reflection of the state and the country. But just to support anyone just based on race, I can’t agree with it.”

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(14) Comments

  1. Tpartywarrior
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    Tpartywarrior - January 02, 2014 9:37 am
    The whole point of this argument is the liberal Democrats, the "tolerant" ones, want to exclude Latina Jessie Rodriguez from joining the Black/ Latina caucus.
    According to these clowns in the caucus, Jocasta Zamarippa is the only legitimate Latina in the State Assembly.

    The hypocrisy from liberal Democrats gets worse everyday.
  2. Mr TM
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    Mr TM - December 31, 2013 11:20 am
    Race matters still matter in our society today. Yet many politicians Black and White rather promote the "Rainbow Coalition Theory" to defeat or overcome the elusive and deniable stem affects of "racism" in the American society. The theory is better designed to fight social classism. The inequalities between the rich and the poor today are undeniable more so than social stem affects of racism.

    Practice of the rainbow coalition theory by politicians, community advocates and other leaders fighting for "change." Has proven to be an ineffective political strategy to bring about complete political change. Whatever social change that may be in our society.

    Think of it this way...If American elected political representation was compared to a finished painting. What art gallery would display a painting depicting the landscape of American elected representatives?

    More than likely it would not be hanging in a art gallery but in a K-4 classroom.

    Which is why the rainbow coalition theory has been ineffective as a political strategy. Any further attempts to sell it as an effective means of political representation is doom to failure in a society where race matters.

    The formation of "Black and Latino Caucuses" did not come from a crystal ball. Black and Latino Caucuses are established to provide separate base colors depicting the true social landscape of the American society.
  3. nolongerliveinwi
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    nolongerliveinwi - December 31, 2013 6:02 am
    I did notice if you got an R by your name f y. Same as the Black thing in washington until it is put in front of the people, the BS 85% white in his distrect.
  4. happydays
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    happydays - December 30, 2013 3:37 pm
    Then why label the caucus with racial terms. Why not label it "Achievement Gap Caucus" because there are children other than minorities who have problems in school? Why not define the group by what they want to achieve instead of "black" Latino, and etc.? That is just asking for comments that bring race into the issue. It is as if people who are white have none of the same problems - that is what divides us - not unites us
  5. witness2012
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    witness2012 - December 30, 2013 2:27 pm
    hd, if a segment of constituents in a district are predominantly white and if there is an issue that is particularly specific to them, it would make sense to have a working group focused on that issue.

    There certainly are political groups made up .of members who are predominantly white, but they are defined by their issue goal- like the NRA- not the race of the members.
  6. witness2012
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    witness2012 - December 30, 2013 2:24 pm
    eclectic, I can think of many common policy goals that those who support the Black and latino caucus would try to advance. There is a minority achievement gap in the schools, for example, 'red-lining' by insurance companies in predominantly minority neighborhoods, and significant poverty among many members of the black and latino communities. Those who are committed to working on those issues would find much in common. Since it is recognized that some white legislators, like Fred Kessler, have districts with a signiifcant minority population that deal with these issues, it makes sense that he would be invited to join..

    What common issues would your proposed "white caucus" deal with? Because that is the question since the issues in common define the purpose of the caucus and its intent, not the racial background of the members.

    .
  7. kd2632
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    kd2632 - December 30, 2013 2:04 pm
    I can't believe that in 2013 we still have race-based caucuses. I guess this must be the 19th century.
  8. Nevets
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    Nevets - December 30, 2013 1:16 pm
    It's certainly not racism unless ones actions or policies show a belief that your race is superior to other races... That being said, I get nervous whenever an elected official or group of official excludes a certain segment of the electorate for whatever reason. Transparency is what is needed and not just lip service to it.
  9. happydays
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    happydays - December 30, 2013 11:21 am
    Exactly - and if whites are a minority in certain areas - how could that be deemed racist? Not that people wouldn't call it that - but on what reasoning? Maybe all groupings should be ended and every one should just work together?
  10. eclectic
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    eclectic - December 30, 2013 10:52 am
    Would it be racist to organize white legislatures into a separate White Caucus so they could work more effectively to promote the common interests of white people?

    Under your thinking, that appears to be fine.
  11. witness2012
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    witness2012 - December 30, 2013 10:43 am
    Having a black and latino caucus is not racist. It's organizing people with a common interest together so they can work more effectively. What those common interests are becomes difficult to define sometimes, which is pointed out in the article, especially in Barnes' comment about not being a fan of identity politics.

    There are also formal and informal political groupings of women legislators- both conservative and liberal- as well as political groupings of legislators who represent rural districts or certain regions of the country. For example, at the national level, legislators who represent the Midwest all work together on policy, regardless of political affiliation. .

    Groups are more effective than individuals in the American political system. That's it. Don't read any more into it than that.
  12. happydays
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    happydays - December 30, 2013 10:18 am
    I agree - that was my first thought. If we want to see the end of racism - we need to see the end of ALL racism. It is amazing to me how blind we all are to the subtle (not) forms of racism that are tolerated and never spoken of because it would be labeled as racism to point it out. Obviously that is WSJ. If you want a real discussion on racism - then put it all out on the table.
  13. eclectic
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    eclectic - December 30, 2013 9:25 am
    Madison.com re-edited the above quote before posting it. White had been substituted for black. Apparently they found that offensive. Total hypocrisy.
  14. eclectic
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    eclectic - December 30, 2013 9:06 am
    Why is there such a thing as the "Black and Latino Caucus"? It's name reeks of racism.

    Would that group be comfortable with the following edited quote?:

    Barnes acknowledged if Wisconsin’s Caucus gave black legislators from minority-majority districts the ability to vote on caucus matters, it could diminish the voice of members. But he also sees the caucus representing the “peoples of the community” rather than exclusively people.

    If you find the edited quote offensive, you should find the original quote just as offensive.

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