He may have selected a cabinet that looks like America, but the president-elect’s picks are just business as usual
Joe Biden, you may have heard, is hiring a lot of women. During his campaign, he promised to appoint the most diverse cabinet in American history. So far, he has hired an all-female communications team and lined up several other women for senior jobs, some of which have never been filled by a woman before. As with the selection of his vice-president, Kamala Harris, the reception has been rapturous. What better way to fumigate Trumpism than by filling the executive with qualified women in senior positions? “There goes the old boys’ club,” says NBC. An article in the Washington Post lists four reasons why Biden’s cabinet should be 50% women: he owes it to them; it looks bad when other countries such as Finland and South Africa have got there first; qualified women are easy to find; and finally, it’s just about damn time.
Behind the scenes, there is pressure on Biden to make good on racial diversity and appoint more people of colour in general. Some Democratic members of Congress have called for at least five more Latinos to be appointed to senior cabinet positions. Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers have written that it will be “deeply disappointing if several AAPIs are not nominated”. Like victors dividing the spoils of war, a diverse array of Americans is scrambling to stake a claim in the new administration.
This could be the start of something positive. But it could equally be a dead end. Diversity has two paths. 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.
Increasingly, liberals are opting for the latter: a commitment to diversity that promises cosmetic changes without deeper transformation. This is part of an attitude that has already hurt the Democratic party severely among Asian Americans and Latinos – groups that have, electorally, been treated as monoliths and taken for granted.
According to Harris, Biden’s words to her were a clincher when considering the job. “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation. That is what we have done.”
Biden’s diverse picks, the “very best of the nation”, are not representatives of the people who put them into office as much as they are figureheads. They are ambassadors with no brief other than to stand as proof of meritocracy – if you work hard and are “the very best”, you too can get a great gig. Diversity in government isn’t about solidarity, it’s used as proof of the soundness of the system: the elevation of women in particular as “girl boss feminists” who will not be interrupted, the reduction of the deeply serious business of government to inspiration politics.
It’s irritating and it’s infantilising, but it can’t be dismissed. There is real value in inspiration politics. To be able to see people who look like you in exclusive places is undoubtedly important. It unlocks confidence and ambition. And there is political capital in caring about the brand of the party and its reputation as inclusive. But when it all stops there what we end up with is a counterfeit form of liberation politics that achieves little beyond letting parties (and businesses) get away with a smattering of new faces.
In a clear-eyed piece on Harris in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Solomon Jones emphasises that after a disappointing eight years of Barack Obama, the black community needs to see more than just symbolic appointments. “We’ve seen this movie before,” writes Jones. “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.”
When people are hired to make a government “look” a certain way, by governing parties with conservative politics, it’s usually a way of making change so everything stays the same – or gets worse. Little demonstrates that more than the “most diverse parliament in history” that came to Westminster in 2019. The election of a number of female and black and minority ethnic MPs to the Conservative party, and their rise in the ranks of the cabinet, has produced a government that feels more comfortable in doubling down on policies such as the hostile environment, and where senior BAME ministers have been recruited to the task of denying structural racism.
The clue to the lack of potential in Biden’s diversity drive is in the fact that these appointments so far have been received with relief as a return to business as usual. Brendan Buck, an ex-adviser to the former Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan, tweeted: “These Biden nominations and appointments are so delightfully boring.” Analysts at Politico wrote that Biden’s team picks so far are characterised by their belief in a “linear, plodding, purposeful and standard policy process”. We cannot forget that it was under the “standard” and comparatively “boring” Obama administration that the Black Lives Matter movement started. Diversity in this form is a phantom lever, a device that is unconnected to any mechanisms of power but gives the illusion of change.
In the euphoria of Donald Trump’s defeat among liberals, I noted on social media an impatience with those who didn’t join in the festivities. “Some people are never happy,” the celebrants complained. If our expectations have been so severely lowered that we are to be grateful for the mere presence of visual diversity in regimes that have failed us for so long, then there is indeed very little to celebrate.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist