Biden’s 'Cabinet of Firsts' betrays a cynical approach to diversity

When diversity is treated as an expedient tactic in a game or a weapon of distraction, its purpose is unraveled.

Hello friends,

Check out my new essay in The Intercept critiquing Biden’s vulgar approach to trying to make history through diversity in his administration — and the way it speaks to a broader problem of reductiveness in understanding the meaning of diversity in liberal political culture.

You can read it here at The Intercept. Excerpt below.

Biden’s “Cabinet of Firsts” Betrays a Cynical Approach to Diversity

Diversity helps governments contemplate complex challenges. When it’s treated as an expedient tactic, its purpose is unraveled.

“President-elect Joe Biden has made diversity the watchword for the formation of his incoming administration. From his pick of Kamala Harris as his vice presidential candidate to his mission to assemble “a Cabinet of barrier-breakers, a Cabinet of firsts,” it’s evident that Biden’s emphasis on diversity is his opening bid to secure a historic presidential legacy before he’s even taken office.

On paper, this agenda is laudable. But in practice, Biden has at times demonstrated a thoughtless and vulgar attitude toward diversity, one that degrades its meaning and purpose — and illustrates how Democrats can use the language of multiculturalism without taking bold steps to help marginalized people.

The increasing salience of antiracist practices and optics in blue America is driving much of Biden’s attention to achieving historic levels of diversity among his personnel. Over the course of the Trump era, the Democratic Party’s commitment to inclusiveness of marginalized communities intensified in response to the emergence of mainstream white nationalist politics. After the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, liberals and the left developed a more pronounced interest in thinking of institutional staffing and leadership as critical sites for elevating Black voices. And voters of color played a crucial — and conspicuous — role in Biden’s victory on Election Day.

Yet the president-elect’s actual execution of his promise to make history with diversity has ranged from questionable to cynical. Many of the most influential and prized positions in the White House, like chief of staff, have gone to the typical lot of white men that embody Democratic establishment thinking. In contrast, Biden has been haphazard in his job offerings to people of color. On multiple occasions, Biden offered Cabinet positions to women of color that plainly function as consolation prizes, after declining to give them jobs they’re interested in and qualified for.

While some of Biden’s personnel decisions deserve praise, and the process of nominating Cabinet secretaries is still ongoing, his understanding of diversity too often appears to be sterilized and gamified. Diverse appointments seem to be reduced to quotas and fodder for bragging rights, and in the process, policy that actually shapes marginalized communities is neglected. The result is a conflation of diversity with physical appearance, unmoored from the substantive reasons that diversity enriches the institutions embracing it.

Biden’s uneven attention to diversity can be seen in his choices for top White House staff. Key personnel like incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are white men who have worked with Biden before. They are, broadly speaking, moderate and corporate-friendly Democrats with some conservative tendencies. (Other senior staff positions in the White House also skew notably white and male.)

It’s difficult to overstate how critical a president’s inner circle of advisers is. Historian Richard Norton Smith once observed that “every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room, and by the person he picks as his chief of staff.” A president’s top advisers play an indispensable role in shaping their worldview, determining who has access to them, and executing their political agenda. The senior staff will often literally be in the room to counsel a president as they make many of the defining decisions of their presidency. A true diversity fanatic would consider this set of personnel a key opportunity to use diverse backgrounds to guard against groupthink and to grapple with the rapidly shifting contours of American politics as the neoliberal consensus crumbles. Biden has largely elected not to do so.

Biden’s handling of his Cabinet selection has also raised red flags. Marcia Fudge, a prominent Black member of Congress from Ohio, was openly angling for heading the Department of Agriculture. Fudge’s congressional career has placed a great deal of focus on agriculture and SNAP benefits, or food stamps, which are a primary responsibility of the Agriculture Department. Biden, though, offered the agriculture secretary job to Tom Vilsack: a white man who held the exact position throughout the Obama administration and has since become a lobbyist for corporate agricultural interests loathed by many American farmers. Fudge was then offered up the position of secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a gig which, as Vanessa A. Bee put it for The Intercept, has long been seen as the “short straw” of Cabinet positions — and one which Fudge has no particular qualifications for. Indeed, Fudge explicitly said in November that she believed Black leaders were pigeonholed into HUD.”

Read the rest here.