In December, Politico put out an article tracking president-elect Joe Biden’s progress toward his campaign promise to build the most diverse cabinet in history. Titled “Biden’s White Guy Quota,” the piece goes through each of Biden’s picks, rattling off their races and genders, then notes how his team stacks up against the cabinets of previous executives.
It’s an exercise that’s absurd beyond parody.
The article’s authors observe that there’s an upper limit on the number of white men Biden can pick — the titular “white guy quota” — and still hit his goal. They make an exception for Pete Buttigieg, a white guy who would “diversify the Cabinet in his own way as the first openly gay Cabinet member.” He later was appointed secretary of transportation.
One would be hard pressed to argue against the slogan “representation matters.” There’s obvious value for young people of color to see folks who look like them occupying the highest positions of authority, and there’s something to be said for lived experience as well.
But there’s a word for crassly reducing people’s entire identities to their most basic demographic categories, then ticking off boxes until you meet an arbitrary benchmark: tokenism.
Case in point: Marcia Fudge, a Black representative from Ohio, was passed over for position of Secretary of Agriculture. Over the objections of progressives, Black farmers and even moderate Black congressional leaders like Jim Clyburn, Biden tapped Obama Agriculture Secretary turned dairy lobbyist Tom Vilsack.
Fudge was granted the consolation prize of Housing and Urban Development. A month prior, she had made a comment that proved sadly prescient: “As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.” Biden’s decision to pick Fudge, who has experience in agricultural policy but not housing, mirrors Trump’s tokenism in selecting Ben Carson.
The Dept. of Agriculture would benefit immensely from the leadership of a reform-minded Black woman who has a desire to address systemic racial inequality in the American food supply. Instead, Biden opted for Vilsack, whose entire tenure under Obama was marked by policies that tipped the balance of power in favor of Big Agriculture to the detriment of small Black farmers and immigrant laborers.
By sticking Fudge in HUD and selecting Vilsack to helm the Dept. of Agriculture, Biden’s transition team was able to defend the interests of giant agribusiness while still coming in under its “white guy quota.” The status quo stays intact, but the administration gets to put out a nice press release about its “historic” diversity.
The emphasis on diversity in the cabinet is calculated in two respects. For starters, given the composition of Congress, Biden will likely face deadlock on most issues throughout his entire presidency. Therefore, he needs to frontload his term with accomplishments in the one arena of executive power he can actually exercise, i.e. cabinet appointments.
Second, Democrats have a concept of progress continually moving forward, a.k.a. “Whig history.” Since the party has long proven unable to deliver in material terms, it has to rely on a series of symbolic barriers broken — the first Black defense secretary, the first woman treasury secretary, etc.
On both a symbolic and substantive level, Joe Biden is a move in the opposite direction. Not only is Biden an old white man — he’s a conservative who, more than any other Democrat, has been complicit in the oppression of women and Black people.
In order to resolve the cognitive dissonance of the liberal faithful, the Democratic operatives surrounding Biden have to do their best to make this old white guy who once opposed desegregation in schools seem like a champion of diversity.
Furthermore, because most liberals believe that our institutions are fine the way they are, the most revolutionary thing they can imagine is a simple change of personnel, where the machinery functions the same but the operators are more competent — and diverse.
The primary difference between liberals and the left isn’t whether “representation matters” or the value of identity, lived experience and so on. The real crux of the issue is the meaning of representation in government.
If one has it in their head that our government is democratic and primarily exists to serve the interests of ordinary citizens, then a cabinet that more closely resembles the population represents a great step forward.
But socialists understand that real power resides neither on Capitol Hill nor in the White House but in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies and Wall Street hedge funds. From a Marxist perspective, the state is a dictatorship of capital in which officials exist to manage the affairs of the ruling elites.
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Therefore, in terms of outcome, the racial, ethnic or gender characteristics of Biden’s cabinet have little practical significance. Those are facets of identity but so are class and, perhaps more importantly, ideology.
Wally Adeyemo, slated to be the first Black deputy treasury secretary, tells stories about growing up as an immigrant in Inland Empire, California. But when he’s making decisions on financial regulations, which identity is more relevant? His lived experience as a Black immigrant or his work experience at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm.
Does it matter more that Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick for defense secretary, is a Black man or that he’s a former board member of defense contractor Raytheon sitting on half a million in stock?
If there were a Black woman who would defend the interests of Big Ag as ardently as a white man like Tom Vilsack, you can bet that they would be top of the list to head USDA. Marcia Fudge wasn’t passed over because she was Black. She wasn’t picked because she made it clear that she intended to actually use the office to advance the interests of ordinary Black people.
In many ways, Biden is poised to be the continuation of Obama’s presidency, with his deluded commitment to bipartisanship amid obstruction and his emphasis on symbolic gains over material ones. It’s a bitter irony that even as liberals celebrate the departure of Trump, the Democrats are recreating the conditions that gave rise to him in the first place.