PHOENIX — There’s a political jigsaw puzzle being solved in Washington, largely behind the scenes, as President-elect Joe Biden settles on a slew of cabinet appointments he’s promised will “look like America.”
It’s a worthy goal, and long overdue.
For the record, here’s what America looks like today: The country is about 60.1% white, 18.5% Hispanic, 13.4% Black, 6.1% Asian or Pacific Islander and 1.3% Native American.
All told, non-whites are about 40% of the population and projected to be in the majority by 2045, which is just one generation away. How do we know that will happen? One clue: non-white children are already a majority of the population under 18.
Diversity, of course, isn’t just about race or ethnicity. Women are a majority of the population in the U.S. and worldwide but still woefully underrepresented in the halls or political power. And the LGBTQ community also deserves representation, as do people with disabilities. (And, granted, this column doesn’t begin to address the vitally important issue of a nominee’s ideological leanings.)
Ultimately, representation matters. It matters a lot. For folks who want to know what it feels like to be part of a community that’s underrepresented in the White House, Congress, the overwhelming majority of America’s corporate boardrooms and pretty much every other major segment of society, welcome to my world. And to those who claim, “I don’t see color,” Biden’s inauguration makes 45 out of 46 white, male American presidents, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman, first African American and first Indian American to serve in that office. Get the picture?
Still, as much as I believe the people who run our government should look like the people they represent, I get that Biden’s promise won’t be easy to keep, even in the era of so-called racial reckoning.
Ironically, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard considering the gutter level bar set by President Trump, the most unabashedly racist president in American history since Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who relished killing off Native Americans. (Then again, who knows what new atrocities Trump might have conjured up in a second term.)
Back to Biden: Let’s at least acknowledge that the job of appointing a diverse administration involves juggling an incredible range of competing interests that involve not just a sincere belief that diversity is a good thing, and it most certainly is, but also those oh-so-human complications that arise when power and self interest get added to the mix.
I may be a good person who wants to do right by “my community,” but I also have an ego to feed and a mortgage to pay. Saints go to heaven, but ambitious politicos, even the most well meaning, go to Washington.
It also doesn’t help matters that our nation’s capital is drowning in special interest campaign cash and home to a no-holds-barred brand of partisan brinkmanship better suited to lucha libre than public service. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, at the federal level alone, “the total cost of the 2020 election is expected to near $14 billion, more than twice as expensive as the 2016 cycle.”
So, given the multitude of factors at hand, how has Biden done so far? Compared to Trump, Joe is manna from heaven. As of December 13, the Washington Post reports that seven of Biden’s picks are women and nine are people of color. Divine intervention aside, that’s not bad. He may even end up out-diversifying his old boss, Barack Obama.
Here’s the president-elect’s list of nominations, so far, in no particular order:
- Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latino and first immigrant to lead the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, which, among many other things, oversees immigration enforcement and citizenship programs.
- Secretary of State goes to Tony Blinken, white and male;
- Former Federal Research Chair Janet Yellin would be the first woman to lead the U.S. Treasury Department;
- Xavier Becerra, now California’s Attorney General and the son of Mexican immigrants, would be the first Latino head of Health and Human Services;
- U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge would become the first Black woman to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development;
- Tom Vilsack, who is white, would head the Department of Agriculture;
- Denis McDonough, another white man, would lead Veterans Affairs;
- Katherine Tai, who is Chinese-American, would be Biden’s U.S. trade representative. She would be the first Asian-American woman to lead that office;
- Susan Rice, who is African-American and served as UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor in the Obama White House, would lead Biden’s Domestic Policy Council;
- Avril Haines, who is white, would be National Security Advisor;
- Neera Tanden, who is Indian American, is slated to head the Office of Management and Budget;
- Linda Thomas Greenfield, who is African American, would be UN Ambassador.
- Ron Klain, who is white, is chief of staff.
- Cecilia Rouse, who is Black, is Biden’s pick to be his chair of economic advisors.
There are still several key cabinet appointments to make, including attorney general, secretaries of the interior, environmental protection, labor, transportation, commerce, small business, energy.
Not to mention, there’s about 4,000 other White House staff and administration jobs to fill, an issue I plan to address in a future column. Representation matters there, too, since that’s where a lot of future cabinet appointments get their training.
Still missing at the cabinet level? Anyone representing the disability or LGBTQ communities, or, and this is a major omission, a Latina.
Mr. President-elect, if you ask me, appointing more than one Latina to fill the slots you have left would be smart, especially given the vital role Latinas and other women voters played in several swing states.
But who’s counting?
Updated: Friday, Dec. 18, 2020
Here’s the latest since my column originally posted:
First, Biden still hasn’t nominated a Latina. Why not? Not doing so would be a big mistake. I’m convinced Latinas drove overall voter turnout this year in the Latino community for Democrats, including Biden. They deserve to be rewarded.
President-elect Biden announced Pete Buttigieg as his pick to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation. Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is white, would be the first openly gay cabinet secretary.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is white, was chosen to serve as energy secretary.
Michael S. Regan becomes the first African American nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland is Biden’s choice to lead the Department of the Interior. A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, she would be the first Native American ever nominated to serve as a cabinet secretary.
Haaland may be President-elect’s most historic nomination yet, given that Haaland’s ancestors were here long before the U.S. even existed. As head of interior, she would oversee management federal controlled lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources. She would also direct the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages banking and investment services tied to royalties and other funds dispensed to Native Americans each year. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, calls Haaland “unequivocally progressive.”
(A footnote: Haaland’s historic nomination is also the one that leaves me with major mea culpa egg on my face. Ironically, in a column about how inclusive Biden’s White House appointments will be I had failed to mention the president-elect hadn’t yet nominated a Native American. That was stupid on my part. I deeply regret the omission.)
James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant based in Phoenix, AZ, the editor and publisher of the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America, and author of the upcoming book “Vanguardia: The American Latino Renaissance & the Future of Our Nation.”