Inaugural diversity

When the media employs the term, what does it mean?

On Inauguration Day, Americans of all kinds looked for reflections of themselves in the festivities. Did social minorities find one?

Some of them surely did, according to media coverage — Voice of America trumpeted in a headline that there was “Diversity on Display.” But when the mainstream media says “diversity,” who’s included?

African Americans, certainly. Most news outlets mentioned that Inauguration Day coincided with Martin Luther King Day and noted that the ceremony began with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, giving the invocation. (Almost none mentioned that Evers-Williams is an activist herself; she chaired the NAACP from 1995-98.) Even so, the media could have made more of the fact that Barack Obama is an African American, said The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson:

Reaction to the address took remarkably little notice of the fact that Obama is an African American. That seems to be old news.

Not for me, though. Not for a man who grew up in the segregated South … Pictures of an African American family enveloped by Secret Service protection … returning at night to sleep in the grand residence of the nation’s head of state - these images show us something new about what is possible, something new about ourselves.

The press was also quick to note the high visibility of Latinos during the ceremony. “Latinos are taking a more prominent role in President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, from the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice swearing in the vice president to a star-studded concert celebrating Latino culture,” said the Associated Press, noting that Latinos were perhaps being rewarded as a nod to their fundraising savvy and electoral influence — they voted 7 to 1 for Obama. The story went on to mention that the inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, is Cuban and an immigrant (as is Rev. Luis Leon, the minister who gave the benediction).

Gay and lesbian pundits in the mainstream press were delighted with the involvement of Blanco, who is openly gay, and even happier with their inclusion in Obama’s speech, the first time gay rights has been mentioned at an inauguration.

“Obama has not been shy about talking inclusively about gays and lesbians,” said Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post. “But his words, said with confidence and conviction from that spot on this day go well beyond what he or any president before him has ever done.” However, none but Adele M. Stan at AlterNet pointed out that “Alas, transgender people, it seems, will continue to wait for their day.”

Women were more prominent than ever in the President’s speech, pointed out opinion writer Meg Waite Clayton in The Los Angeles Times. She said that Obama used more female pronouns than male pronouns. However, his call for equal pay for equal work didn’t go far enough, noted Bryce Covert, a contributor to Forbes. She said the pay gap has been widening since the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act at the beginning of his last term and suggested Obama push farther, for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a raise in the minimum wage, and family leave.

Anne-Marie Slaughter at The Atlantic was even more skeptical of how women made out at the inauguration.

“After the passion of the moment, I am left with the sober realization that Obama still hasn’t taken to heart the extent of discrimination against women,” she wrote. She said that the reason women’s and gay rights are “unfinished business” is because those groups deviate from the straight male norm. What’s needed, she said, is to change the norm itself. Worse, “the rainbow of the inauguration was sadly counter-pointed by the signing ceremony immediately afterwards, in which Obama sat at his desk surrounded by six men and one woman to sign the cabinet nominations for four men … Which was ceremony and which was substance?”

That’s a good question. And an equally good one is: Where were the other social minorities, like Muslims and Asian Americans? And why did the ceremony reflect only one religion?

I didn’t see anyone in the mainstream media address this, but the ceremony seemed to me to be wildly Christian, from the invocation that mentioned Jesus to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the benediction given by the Episcopal priest. The Jewish Daily Forward searched for signs of inclusion, saying that the speech, “which broadly stressed the message of equality, had little other references specifically of interest to the Jewish community,” adding wryly that poet Blanco did say “shalom” and that master of ceremonies Chuck Schumer is Jewish. I couldn’t find anything in the Muslim press or blogs writing about the realization that they were left out entirely (if readers have seen otherwise, I’d love to know).

The absence of Asian Americans was particularly noticeable — even one of the two current Asian American Cabinet members, Eric Shinseki, was missing, since apparently he was chosen to be the customary “designated survivor,” kept in a secure location in case of a catastrophe. Though Obama’s one line about immigration affects Asian Americans as well as Latinos, there was no sign at the inaguration ceremony that Asian Americans even exist in America, despite the fact that they comprise over 5 percent of the population and are the fastest growing racial group.

The verdict? Obama’s Second Inaugural was diverse, yes, in that it didn’t reflect only straight, white men. But it wasn’t diverse in the sense of being inclusive of America’s actual multicultural makeup. The nation is more than Christian, more than African American, Latino, and gay. There are also South Asian Americans, Asian Americans, transgender people, Native Americans, and people who practice a multiplicity of religions. At least a nod to this greater diversity would have been in order. I was surprised, and a little alarmed, that no one in the mainstream media seemed to have noticed these omissions. We journalists must notice, and be a watchdog for all of the nation’s social minorities, because they depend on us to get their voices out in the world.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.