Will the Joe Biden administration ‘look like America’?

Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden addresses a crowd at Wilson High School on Oct. 26, 2019, in Florence, South Carolina. Photo by Sean Rayford | Getty Images

There’s a political 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 nation’s population and are projected to be in the majority by 2045, which is just one generation away. Non-white children, meanwhile, 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, admittedly, this column doesn’t even begin to address the important issue of a nominee’s ideological leanings.)

Representation matters. If you’d like to know what it feels like to be part of a community that’s underrepresented in the White House, Congress and the overwhelming majority of America’s corporate boardrooms and pretty much every other major segment of society, welcome to my world. 

To those who claim “I don’t see color,” Biden’s inauguration will make 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.

Still, as much as I believe the people who run our government should look like the folks 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 U.S. 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 acknowledge that the job of appointing a diverse administration involves juggling an incredible range of competing interests that involve not just diversity 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 doesn’t help 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 pro wrestling 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.”

Given the multitude of complications at hand, how has Biden done so far? Compared to Trump, Joe is manna from heaven. Divine intervention notwithstanding, his early record isn’t bad. He may end up out-diversifying his old boss, Barack Obama.

Here’s the president-elect’s list of nominations, in no particular order, as of Dec. 11:

  • 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 is slated to head the Office of Management and Budget. She is Indian American.
  • Linda Thomas Greenfield, who is Black, would be UN Ambassador.

There are still several key cabinet appointments to make, including attorney general, secretaries of the interior, environmental protection, labor, transportation, commerce, and energy. Not to mention, some 4,000 other White House staff and administration jobs.

Missing, for now, anyone who represents the disability community or is openly LGBTQ, or Latina. 

Dear Mr. President-elect, if you ask me, appointing more than one Latina would be smart, especially given the vital role Latinas and other women voters played in several swing states, including Arizona, which hadn’t picked a Democrat for president since Harry S. Truman in 1948.

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 her 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 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. I deeply regret the omission.)

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.