RUNNING FOR Congress in Tennessee last spring, Jewish Democrat Stephen Cohen made an unusual pledge: If the mostly Christian voters of the Ninth Congressional District would send him to Washington, he would proudly seek to become the first Jewish member of the Congressional Christian Caucus. Cohen wanted voters to understand that while he might not be Christian himself, he would diligently represent the best interests of his Christian constituents -- including by working through the Capitol Hill caucus that focuses on issues of particular concern to Christians.
Cohen eventually carried the district with 60 percent of the vote. But when the freshman congressman tried to keep his campaign promise, he was brusquely advised to forget it: Jews weren't welcome in the Congressional Christian Caucus. "Mr. Cohen asked for admission," one caucus member said coldly, "and he got his answer."
Now, before you rise in outrage at the news that in this day and age a congressman can be blackballed on religious grounds by a congressionally authorized legislative organization, a confession: This didn't really happen. There is no Christian Caucus, and Cohen hasn't been excluded from anything because of his religion. If such a scenario had occurred, the uproar would be deafening.
But change "Jewish" to white and "Christian" to black, and virtually everything about the scenario above happened as described.
Cohen is a newly elected congressman from Tennessee's majority-black Ninth District, and as a candidate he pledged to seek membership in the Congressional Black Caucus if elected. But that was before members of the caucus made it clear it would be a serious mistake for him to press the point when he arrived on Capitol Hill.
"I think they're real happy I'm not going to join," Cohen told The Politico, a new political journal in Washington, last week. "It's their caucus and they do things their way."
Black caucus members put the point a little more bluntly.
"Mr. Cohen asked for admission and he got his answer," said Representative William Clay Jr. of Missouri. "It's an unwritten rule. It's understood. It's clear." To make sure of that, Clay's father -- former representative William Clay Sr., a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus -- had distributed a memo declaring it "critical" that the CBC "membership remain exclusively African-American." Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. , the Clays apparently believe in judging people less by the content of their character than by the color of their skin.
The Congressional Black Caucus was formed 38 years ago to do what all congressional caucuses do: bring together members who share certain interests in pursuit of common legislative goals. Its "core mission," says the CBC, "has been to close . . . disparities that exist between African-Americans and white Americans in every aspect of life." For an ardent liberal Democrat like Cohen -- whose constituency is 60 percent black, most of whose staff is black, and whose 20-year voting record in the Tennessee Legislature Cohen himself likens to that of "a black woman" -- membership in the caucus should be a no-brainer.
After all, congressional caucuses are not country clubs open only to applicants with the right bloodlines. The Congressional French Caucus isn't limited to French-Americans or the Congressional Native American Caucus to American Indians. By the same token, the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus isn't open only to members of Congress with glaucoma, you don't have to be a horseman to be in the Congressional Horse Caucus, and the Congressional Arts Caucus isn't restricted to musicians and painters.
Nothing about the Congressional Black Caucus is enhanced by strict racial segregation. On the contrary: As a matter of sheer political effectiveness, caucus members should welcome with open arms new colleagues of every race who share their aims or represent large black populations. To spurn a potential ally because his skin is the "wrong" color is politically dumb and morally despicable.
Cohen isn't the first white congressman to seek admission to the CBC. Thirty years ago, Representative Pete Stark, a California Democrat, wanted to join. "Half my Democratic constituents were African-American," Stark said last week. "I felt we had interests in common as far as helping people in poverty. They had a vote, and I lost. They said the issue was that I was white, and they felt it was important that the group be limited to African-Americans."
A disheartening constant in American life is the politician who sees people first and foremost as members of racial groups, and who insists on racial separateness in the institutions he values most. But some things do change: Such politicians used to be called reactionary. Today they're known as progressive.