- The Biden administration is being praised for its diversity, having selected minorities for high-profile roles.
- Some of these appointees though, have advanced policies or taken money from donors that have hurt communities of color in the US and around the world.
- Just because Biden's cabinet is diverse, doesn't mean people of color should get excited for officials who may push policies that hurt their communities.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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After "Green Book" won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2018, I opined on whether a movie with a diverse cast meant much towards the goal of representation in film if said representation was problematic in and of itself.
In the movie, actor Mahershala Ali portrays a role that fits perfectly into the trope of the "magical negro," a Spike Lee-coined term that describes an all-knowing Black character whose sole purpose is to better his or her white counterpart. These characters lack agency and only further the character development of the film's white protagonist, leaving many people of color to wonder what the value of this representation actually is. Is progress being made, or is Hollywood only interested in optics?
Two years after the movie's release, a similar problem is brewing in Washington.
Despite President Donald Trump's laughably bad coup attempt, President-elect Joe Biden has moved forward in selecting his team, and pundits are praising the group announced thus far as extraordinarily diverse.
That may be the case in a technical sense, but some of Biden's picks conjure a common worry about true progress in this country. Minorities can promote bad policy too, after all. And considering some of their roles in the administration, I am hard-pressed to drum up excitement for these appointments.
The path to whimsical diversity leaves us with a glaring problem. People of color are being asked to get excited for the nominations of minorities who, in their official capacities, will work to advance policies that often result in the harm of communities of color here and abroad.
Take Joe Biden's selection of Gen. Lloyd Austin for Secretary of Defense. Austin is a retired general who once commanded US offenses in the Middle East, and his appointment is being heralded as a sign of a progressing nation because, if confirmed, he'll be the first Black man to hold the position.
But how much value can I put into an appointment who has worked to worsen the world's political landscape?
More worrisome than Austin's leadership of our doomed participation in the Middle East are his actions in retirement. Austin sits on the board of Raytheon, a defense contractor responsible for arming conflicts around the world that have led to an untold number of civilian deaths. Most notable among these conflicts is Raytheon's $8 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia which has effectively fueled the country's seemingly indiscriminate bombing of Yemen, creating the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
As a board member of Raytheon, Austin profits from Yemeni casualties, and the fact that he is Black doesn't change this fact. It's true that Lloyd is only a cog in the machine that is destroying the Arab world, but no part of that machine is worthy of praise.
Profiting from tragedy isn't unique to the military. When Cedric Richmond was selected to be a senior advisor to the soon-to-be president, climate activists were quick to highlight his problematic ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Richmond will head the Office of Public Engagement, working as an intermediary between the Biden administration and grassroots campaigns. Some of those campaigns, like the Sunrise Movement, point out that as a congressman, Richmond had "taken big money from the fossil fuel industry, cozied up with oil and gas [lobbyists], and stayed silent while polluters poisoned his own community."
The Biden administration has another diverse candidate in Richmond, a Black man, but he only serves as another example of potential harm towards the communities he's supposed to be reflecting.
Black and Hispanic communities in the US are disproportionately affected by air pollution, and now they're supposed to applaud the appointment of a man who happily took donations from the industries responsible for that problem. To make matters worse, all of this comes after Biden promised to avoid using fossil fuel money during his campaign last year.
Right after Thanksgiving, Biden made news for hiring an all-female senior communications staff. The team is making history in this regard, but New York Magazine's Olivia Nuzzi rightfully noted that their gender won't matter if they aren't accessible and transparent with the press.
I don't fear that Biden's communications team will follow the same path as Trump's, which has lied and misled reporters, but the administration's focus on optics feels strenuous. Obviously, the best people deserve the best jobs. In a just world, those people will be wonderfully diverse, because ability isn't dependent on race or gender. We should aim to achieve a culture where smart and qualified minorities finally get a just opportunity to excel, but what's happening instead is a very clear effort by the Biden administration to look good on paper while advancing policies that hurt minority communities.
This is most apparent in Biden's choice to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, a Black woman. This position is commonly held by people of color, most recently Julian Castro and Ben Carson. Fudge said in November that it's time for Black people to finally transcend the role she was inevitably tapped for.
"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.'"
Fudge is qualified for the job and will happily accept, but the fact that her criticism of the role was ignored or overlooked by Biden's team is a dramatic sign of indifference. The value of the diversity becomes irrelevant if, in practice, it doesn't lead to further progress.
Assuming Biden's picks are confirmed — and some of them may not be, in part due to progressive pushback — people of color have but one option left: to hope that these appointees make a genuine effort to make the lives of their constituents better. Considering our country's history and tendency to prioritize profit, that doesn't seem very likely.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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