Skip to main content

Biden's diversity cabinet will 'do little for communities of colour', experts say

Diverse field of people Biden has selected for his cabinet may fail to address glaring inequalities in US, experts say
In announcing his cabinet, Biden said it would be "the most representative of any Cabinet in American history"
In announcing his cabinet, Biden said it would be 'the most representative of any cabinet in American history' (AFP)
By in
Washington

US President Joe Biden has assembled what he says is the most diverse cabinet in presidential history, filling many key roles with women and people of colour. 

The Democrat has largely finalised the cabinet he wants to work with, and among those picked are Lloyd Austin as the first African-American secretary of defence, Janet Yellen as the first female secretary of the Treasury and Alejandro Mayorkas as the first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

In announcing his cabinet choices in December, Biden remarked: "This cabinet will be the most representative of any cabinet in American history."

'The quality of life for people who are economically distressed, impoverished, living in inadequate housing, experiencing increasing food insecurity, or monitored by local police forces will not change simply based on a more diverse Biden cabinet'

- James Jennings, Tufts University

"We'll have more people of colour than any cabinet ever, we'll have more women than any cabinet ever. We'll have a cabinet of barrier breakers. A cabinet of firsts."

And on paper, the nominations hold true. Twelve of the 24 offices in the cabinet will be held by women.

Meanwhile, Kamala Harris has been sworn-in as the first female, first Indian American, and first Black vice president in history.

Despite Biden appearing to have made good on racial diversity, some have argued that they are simply safe and symbolic picks that will preserve the status quo.

"Representational diversity, or having people from marginalised groups in positions of power, is different from marginalised groups' actual interests being represented," Atiya Husain, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, told Middle East Eye.

"Another problem with representational diversity is that it can protect the institution from legitimate critique, so my conclusion is that the need to politically pressure the federal government to act in the interests of the people will just continue."

'Car crash waiting to happen'

Others argue that, despite the veneer of diversity, Biden's cabinet is the very embodiment of what is known as "the revolving door" between government service and corporate lobbying in DC.

While Austin, a retired four star general, may have made waves as the first African American to be appointed as secretary of defence, questions are being asked as to how he is any different from the numerous government officials who oscillate between the arms industry and the Department of Defense.

Under the Obama administration, Austin served as head of US Central Command and later became a board member of Raytheon, a weapons manufacturer. 

Bombs made by Raytheon have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, resulting in countless civilian deaths.

Austin has since said he would recuse himself from "military decisions" involving the company.

'Holding our breath': Will Biden keep his promise and shut Guantanamo Bay?
Read More »

As journalist Sarah Lazare noted, "the person Biden has reportedly picked to lead the Department of Defense is on the board of Raytheon, a key sup­pli­er of bombs to the U.S.-Saudi war in Yemen that has lob­bied aggressively in opposition to curbs on arms sales to the Sau­di-led coalition".

Some cabinet choices, while making inroads in diversity, have been responsible for poor foreign policy choices, including military interventions and defending torture.

Avril Haines, a former official in the Obama administration who was responsible in part for the country's notorious drone policies, was confirmed as Biden's director of national intelligence.

She is the first woman in US history to take on the role.

"This is a car crash waiting to happen, or a collision waiting to happen, because on one hand you do have this pressure on Biden to appoint women, people of colour, to have this diverse workforce, particularly in his upper echelons," Kelley Vlahos, senior adviser for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said in a podcast interview with The Intercept.

"But at the same time, you know, progressives and non-interventionists are saying, 'Well, we can't have the same old voices and the same old perspectives and we particularly don’t want people who are responsible for failed wars and torture and all these other things in there'.

"So I've seen some arguing back and forth, Well, should Biden appoint a woman or a person of colour? What if that woman or person of colour, you know, come with a boatload of baggage because of their past failures in policy or what they represent in Washington?"

Supporting progressive policies

Since Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in November's elections, progressives have made several demands when it comes to Biden's policy promises, including ending corporate influence on Capitol Hill, and Washington's "forever wars" - a call that Biden himself has made, but critics have suggested may fall back on.

Dozens of anti-war, environmental and human rights groups have also sent a 100-person roster of recommendations for senior positions in Biden's administration.

But the Biden camp appears to have rebuffed several of these concerns, with neither Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders, two popular progressive Democrats, likely to serve in his administration.

'Vicious cycle of militarism': Biden's defence team criticised for ties to arms industry
Read More »

Solomon Jones, a best-selling author, recently wrote that after eight disappointing years under Obama, Black Americans needed to see more than just symbolic appointments.

"We've seen this movie before," Jones wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I am a registered Democrat, but I am also an avowed realist. Putting Black and brown faces up front while repeatedly uttering the phrase 'racial justice' does not stop discrimination in lending, employment, education, criminal justice, or any of the myriad systems that treat people of colour unfairly."

James Jennings, professor emeritus of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, agreed, telling MEE that a diverse cabinet would not yield positive change for either poor Americans or communities of colour.

"It would be a huge strategic mistake on the part of people who support progressive policies to rely on diversity for substantive change."

"The quality of life for people who are economically distressed, impoverished, living in inadequate housing, experiencing increasing food insecurity, or monitored by local police forces will not change simply based on a more diverse Biden cabinet."