When President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, he will inherit a nation that is divided.
Americans are demanding leaders atone for the forces of White supremacy that motivated a mob to storm the US Capitol on January 6 in its refusal to accept President Donald Trump’s loss. And people of color, despite their rising political power, have been among the communities hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and other disparities.
Biden has achieved a historic feat that observers hope will help begin the process of repairing a broken country. The President-elect has the most racially diverse presidential Cabinet in the history of the US. A CNN analysis found that 50% of nominees for Cabinet positions and Cabinet-level positions are people of color. That figure includes Vice President-elect Kamala Harris who will be the first Black and South Asian person and first woman to hold the position. Former President Barack Obama set the previous record for diversity with a Cabinet that was 42% people of color.
Civil rights leaders have praised Biden for keeping his promise of creating a Cabinet that better reflects the country’s changing demographics. However, this is only the first step and they are cautiously optimistic.
Biden’s administration will be expected to enact policies that lead to substantive change for communities of color. The Cabinet will be judged on whether it can end the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure vaccine access to underserved communities, support voting rights legislation, revive the economy, push police reform that addresses the fact that Black people are killed by police at higher rates, and reverse Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Civil rights activists will also be looking for Biden to consider people of color for deputy roles in the Cabinet as well as judges and US attorneys.
“We believe that Biden’s Cabinet appointments are just the starting point for a slate of demands that Black people and other people of color have,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change. “For us, diversity is just table stakes. It’s like the baseline thing that needs to happen.”
Diversity on a ‘new level’
Biden will be turning the tide of a majority White and male Trump administration that was only 16% people of color.
Trump garnered criticism for the lack of diversity in his Cabinet and his failure to address issues of concern to communities of color.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, he used offensive rhetoric to target Muslims, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, Africans, congresswomen of color, and Black athletes protesting racial inequality.
During an impeachment hearing for Trump on Wednesday, Rep. Cori Bush, a freshman Democrat from Missouri, called Trump a White supremacist.
“If we fail to remove a White supremacist President who incited a White supremacist insurrection, it’s communities like Missouri’s first district that suffer the most,” Bush said during her speech. “The 117th Congress must understand that we have a mandate to legislate in defense of Black lives. The first step in that process is to root out White supremacy starting with impeaching the White supremacist in chief.”
A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 56% of Americans believed that Trump made race relations worse in the US.
The country experienced a reckoning on racism last summer when mass protests erupted after the controversial police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. Covid-19 exacerbated already existing health disparities as people of color have died from the virus at higher rates than White people.
Inequality has now become a central focus for this country and many social justice advocates are looking for Biden to right the wrongs of the Trump administration.
In December, lawmakers and civil rights groups pressured Biden to appoint Black, Latino and Asian nominees to his Cabinet, citing the nation’s heightened alert on race and justice.
Douglas Brinkley, a CNN presidential historian, said Biden’s diverse Cabinet is taking the White House to a “new level” that past presidents haven’t been able to accomplish.
Former President Bill Clinton, Brinkley said, attempted to create a diverse Cabinet when he chose four Black and two Hispanic department heads.
Still, Clinton came under fire for passing the 1994 Crime Bill, which strengthened law enforcement across the country, provided federal money for new cops and prisons, and ordered mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders. Critics say the bill led to mass incarceration of Black people. Biden, who authored the bill, has defended aspects of it while also calling it a “mistake” and blaming its negative impacts on state governments.
Brinkley said Biden and his Cabinet have an opportunity to disprove critics who say Democrats rely on voters of color but don’t meet their expectations.
“This is coming at a time when the Republican party seems to be doubling down on being the party of White Americans only,” Brinkley said. “There’s a feeling here of a last gasp of particularly White male privilege going on here and Biden is trying to shatter that impression of America by making sure his Cabinet is very diverse and that should be applauded.”
Falling short with Asian Americans
While Black and Latino leaders say they are pleased with the Cabinet picks, Biden did not meet the expectations of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus that asked for top-tier representation in the Cabinet.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the nation and make up 6% of the US population.
Biden nominated two Asian people to Cabinet level positions. Neera Tanden will be the Office of Management and Budget Director and Katherine Tai was named US Trade Representative. Both will be the first Asian American women in their roles.
Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair and California Rep. Judy Chu called it “incredibly disheartening” that an Asian American Pacific Islander was not selected for a Cabinet secretary job for the first time since 2000.
“Despite the diversity amongst these Cabinets selections, we are deeply disappointed by the decision to exclude AAPIs from the 15 Cabinet Secretary positions who oversee executive departments in our government,” Chu said. “The glaring omission of an AAPI Cabinet Secretary in the self-declared ‘most diverse Cabinet in history’ is not lost on us and sends a demoralizing message to our nation’s fastest growing racial group and voting bloc that AAPIs do not need to be counted the same way as other key constituency groups.”
According to CNN exit polls, Asian Americans backed Biden at 61%.
Biden has promised to meet the concerns of AAPI’s including appointing them as judges and federal officials, protecting the Affordable Care Act to mitigate their barriers to healthcare access, fighting the rise in hate crimes against their community, and rescinding Trump’s Muslim ban.
A ‘milestone,’ but it’s only a first step
In December, Biden met with several Black civil rights leaders who pushed Biden to tap Black people for high level Cabinet roles and not just second-tier positions.
Many wanted Biden to pick a Black attorney general who would crack down on police violence in the Black community and voting rights. Biden ultimately selected Merrick Garland for the role.
Black Americans make up 12% of the US population and have faced oppression dating back to slavery and the Jim Crow era. Black people are also three times more likely than White people to be killed by police, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Biden ultimately picked five Black people for his Cabinet including incoming Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon, and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who was named HUD secretary. Other Black nominees include incoming EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who will be the first Black man to head the department; Cecilia Rouse, incoming chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and the first Black person to hold the post; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield will be U.N. Ambassador.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, was among the civil rights leaders who met with Biden and said the President-elect has achieved a “milestone” with this diverse Cabinet.
Morial said he believes their push for diversity was crucial to ensure Biden kept his word.
Now Biden will be charged with prioritizing equitable Covid-19 vaccine access, economic equality and increased funding for Black-owned businesses, voting rights and other issues affecting the Black community, Morial said.
“He has successfully gotten to first base,” Morial said. “I think for people who are fair minded and open minded, the truth is that the way people feel will very much be predicated on how they (Biden’s Cabinet) perform.”
Biden makes gains with Latinos
Latino leaders have also praised Biden for his Cabinet picks. Latinos hold the largest minority population in the country at 18%.
Biden selected four Latino people for his Cabinet and three are Cabinet secretaries. The nominees include Xavier Becerra, for Secretary of Health and Human Services; Miguel Cardona for Secretary of Education, Alejandro Mayorkas for Secretary of Homeland Security; and Isabel Guzman who will be the Small Business Administrator. Becerra and Mayorkas will be the first Latinos to lead their departments.
Last week, the heads of UnidosUs, Hispanic Federation and other national groups met with Biden, Harris and their Hispanic Cabinet nominees to discuss the challenges facing the Latino community. Among the issues discussed were the devastating toll Covid-19 has had on Latino Americans, health care access, immigration, and jobs, the leaders said in a statement.
“The President-elect knows our people are hurting,” said Janet Murguía, UnidosUS President and CEO. “He wants to address the health and economic impact on the Latino community and understands the need to address systemic inequality by putting equity at the center of his economic and health care response. This feels like a new day, a huge change.”
Eric Rodriguez, senior vice president of UnidosUS, said he expects Biden to undo the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies that he called “cruel and heartless and gutless.”
Rodriguez said having a diverse Cabinet will help Biden gain the trust of people of color.
“Having that cultural experience and background is just so important to being able to communicate and get information from those communities,” Rodriguez said.
Native Americans celebrate historic appointment
Biden was also lauded by Native Americans when he nominated Deb Haaland for secretary of the Interior, which will make her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.
Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of IllumiNative, said she now wants to see Biden’s Cabinet boost funding for Covid-19 relief in Native American communities and ensure vaccine access. Echo Hawk said Native Americans have been sickened or dying from Covid-19 at high rates because of the “deliberate and long-term under-funding” of their health care systems.
Native Americans are also asking Biden to undo the repeated attempts by the Trump administration to undermine tribal sovereignty over their lands and sacred sites, suspend Trump’s decision to lease drilling rights on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and rebuild the relationship between tribal leaders and the federal government, Echo Hawk said.
“We are encouraged to see these strides toward political representation that looks like the United States and the constituents the Cabinet serves,” Echo Hawk said. “However, this must be accompanied by policies that transform the systems of power that have shutout Native, Black, Latinx, and other communities of color for generations.”