Biden’s diverse cabinet, and what’s at stake

President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet is “historically diverse.” It “reflects America.” It is, potentially, “record-breaking.” These observations recur throughout coverage as Biden rolls out each new cabinet selection. But, so far—and despite headlines celebrating each new “first”—such coverage has devoted little attention to what his picks mean for historically underrepresented populations, or how they may use their respective positions. Indeed, too many news stories seem content to provide little beyond a name, a position, and a demographic.

Representation matters, certainly, but should not be separated from the stakes facing those communities that policymakers represent. In a November profile of US Representative Deb Haaland, published weeks before Biden selected her to head the Department of the Interior, Julian Brave NoiseCat helpfully detailed the significance of her appointment: “A tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland would not only be the first Native person to oversee the Department of Interior, which handles much of the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationship with the 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities, but also the first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.” A presidential cabinet is not merely—and certainly not most importantly—fodder for horse-race coverage and palace intrigue. It is a collection of advisers and policy shapers that holds immense power over the lives of Americans. 

Take former California attorney general Xavier Becerra, who will be the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, charged with leading the country out of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and left others with chronic diseases or mountains of medical debt. Part of Becerra’s work will involve confronting disproportionately poor health outcomes for Latinos and Black people, especially. Yet, while some coverage has noted the challenge, there has been less attention from the press as to whether Becerra has a vision for addressing such outcomes—or, for that matter, for tackling skepticism toward the COVID-19 vaccine. (Before you scoff: review histories of the US’s medical experiments.) 

Identity politics have become a polarizing touchstone in American politics—a dynamic fueled, in part, by a largely homogeneous media disinclined toward nuance. The term was first defined in the 1970s by the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group, to illuminate how identities and lived experience affect one’s politics; since then, it has devolved in popular usage into a cudgel for conservatives and liberals––for the former, to decry racial progress, and for the latter, a vehicle for shallow praise. There is an irony here: while a largely white press corps may celebrate diversity and representation, it is reporters of color who often must clue their newsrooms into the notion that the dynamics of a story are much more complex.

No political leaning should be ascribed to offering a job to a qualified candidate. And yet the appointment of women and people of color to cabinet positions has been rebranded as an inherently progressive idea—a notion that has been argued by Zeeshan Aleem in The Intercept, Manny Fidel in Business Insider, Lily Herman in Teen Vogue, and others. “Diversity has two paths,” Nesrine Malik wrote in The Guardian. “The first is one important means with which to address the structural inequalities that produce the marginalisation of those groups in the first place. The second is an end in itself. In a sort of identity relay race, women and people of colour are handed the baton, carry on running, and serve to bless and reinforce the racial and economic status quo.” In the end, the latter path described by Malik is patronizing; it says, Here, a person born in Cuba is running ICE now, what more do you need? And yet this facile, formulaic approach to covering the country’s highest offices––an approach that frequently conflates a leftist or progressive politic with the mere presence of people of color––features prominently across the media landscape.

Many of these appointees have visions for their positions. Those visions are sometimes discernible in coverage: Michael Regan, who is set to become the first Black person to head the Environmental Protection Agency, “is expected to put new emphasis on environmental justice, to protect poor and under-represented communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change,” read one such exemplary piece in Nature magazine. The stakes of climate change are extraordinarily high for all of humanity in the long-run, but especially so for communities of color in the immediate. Journalism that looks only at the person in power—and not at the stakes for everybody else––is bad for policy-makers, for the country, and for the communities that are supposedly being served.

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Below, more on diversity and the incoming government:

  • A Congressional call for more cabinet diversity: Late last month, Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, led more than one hundred members of the 117th Congress in a push for Biden to appoint an Asian-American or Pacific Islander cabinet secretary. “There are nearly 2 million Asian American-owned businesses that generate over $700 billion in annual revenue who are facing dire economic impacts,” reads a December 29 letter from the group, “as well as millions of AAPIs who are facing surging unemployment and anti-Asian discrimination due to the current crisis.” Biden has not yet done so.
  • Pelosi’s House: On Sunday, Democratic representatives reelected Nancy Pelosi to her position as Speaker of the House. Democrats’ hold on the House shrunk by eleven seats, many of which were flipped by Republican candidates who were women or people of color. That trend, wrote the Guardian’s David Smith in November, “represents a conscious effort by a party still dominated by white men: diversify or die.”

Other notable stories:

  • It’s Election Day in Georgia, where two run-off races will decide which party gains control of the Senate—and, with it, the ability to shape the Biden administration’s efforts to fight everything from COVID-19 to climate change. CJR’s Feven Merid wrote about covering the Black vote. The state’s Black journalists “are doing what they can to make space for the experiences of Black Georgians in their coverage—working not only to track instances of disenfranchisement and racially targeted attacks on mail-in ballots, but also to provide clear guidance to Black and Latinx voters,” Merid wrote.
  • The Los Angeles Times interviewed Brian Calle, who last month bought the Village Voice, New York City’s storied, award-winning alt-weekly that was shut down in 2018. Calle also owns LA Weekly, another alt-weekly; his tenure there has largely been marked by what the Times called “sweeping layoffs, followed by accusations of a conservative takeover of the historically left-leaning publication.” Asked what his time with LA Weekly might mean for the Voice, Calle told the Times, “I think it’s impossible to run a lesser version of the Village Voice, because it literally was shut down.”
  • As politics in Poland take an increasingly authoritarian turn, the country’s right-wing government is tightening control of the press, NPR reported. “Instead of information, viewers now get blunt propaganda that is meant to assure them that Law and Justice is the best party to rule this country,” Mariusz Kowalewski, a journalist for a Polish broadcaster, told NPR. In April, the country fell from 59th place on Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index to 62nd––its lowest position in history, according to Notes from Poland
  • On New Year’s Eve, five NY1 news anchors announced they would leave the station after settling a discrimination lawsuit against the station’s parent company, Charter Communications. The anchors had filed their lawsuit in 2019, alleging discrimination on the bases of age and gender. “Men age on TV with a sense of gravitas,” Roma Torre, a long-time journalist with the station and plaintiff, told the New York Times that year, “and we as women have an expiration date.” The terms of the settlement were not made public. 

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.