Why Biden’s diversity efforts fall flat

When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced her resignation, something else disturbingly of note happened in Washington. 

That same day, the Biden transition team announced the last of President-elect Joe Biden’s choices for 15 Cabinet secretaries to lead executive departments, with the naming of nominees for U.S. attorney general, and Commerce and Labor secretaries. 

What went unsaid was that despite a pledge by the president-elect to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, Biden’s Cabinet will be the first in more than 20 years to exclude an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) among the 15 Cabinet slots that oversee federal departments.   

As many have noted, representation matters, and the need for diversity at the highest levels is more than about symbolism and optics. Representation and inclusion also help ensure that a diversity of experiences and perspectives are reflected in decision making.  

Chao’s departure might well be the first of a rumored wave of resignations by Cabinet secretaries who were reportedly discussing stepping aside in light of the chaos that engulfed the U.S. Capitol following a rally supported by President Donald Trump. It sadly also seems Chao could also be the last AAPI Cabinet secretary in some time. 

Ever since President Clinton appointed Norman Mineta to serve as U.S. secretary of Commerce, there has always been at least one AAPI Cabinet secretary under both Democratic and Republican administrations. President Barack Obama had a record three AAPI Cabinet secretaries, President George W. Bush had two AAPI Cabinet secretaries, and Trump had one AAPI Cabinet secretary — the newly resigned Elaine Chao.  

Even before assuming office, Biden’s decision to snub congressional, business and civic leaders who had called for the president-elect to build on the historic progress that AAPIs have made over the past 20 years has now sent an unfortunate — even if unintended — message as he seeks to unite a diverse nation. 

That is, when it comes to a diverse rainbow of representation, perhaps some colors matter more than others. For some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it might well be construed once again as a message of when it comes to the highest levels, wait your turn. Some colors come first. And some leading roles are meant for others. 

Biden, to his credit, has announced his intent to nominate several AAPIs to other “Cabinet-level” positions. These include Catherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris is also both Black and Asian American.  

How sad, though, that the members of the non-partisan, bi-cameral Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) had to repeatedly call on the incoming Biden administration to look to the diversity that is the AAPI community in delivering on the president-elect’s promise to build an inclusive government that reflects the full diversity of the United States.  

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, after all, are 7 percent of the U.S. population and the fastest growing racial group in the nation, with more than 23 million AAPIs living in the country today.  

AAPIs are also the fastest growing segment of the U.S. electorate, according to CAPAC. And by some estimates Asian Americans supported the Biden-Harris ticket by 63 percent to 31percent over Trump-Pence. The 2020 election also saw record turnout among Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in Georgia and might well have provided key margins of victory for winning candidates. 

Currently chaired by Rep. Judy Chu, CAPAC has been addressing the needs of the AAPI community in all areas of American life since it was founded in 1994. And strikingly, it was not just Chu, but also the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) — together comprising the Congressional Tri-Caucus — that called out early on the Biden administration’s failure to nominate an Asian American and Pacific Islander Cabinet secretary.

“For too long, AAPIs have been overlooked and left out of important policy discussions impacting communities of color, including on issues like immigration and healthcare,” said a statement from the Tri-Caucus leadership. Pointedly, the leaders added that without an AAPI Cabinet secretary, “we could not celebrate this as a truly diverse Cabinet because it sends the message that AAPIs do not need to be included.” 

And so, as Trump once said in an interview marked by tone deafness and insensitivity at its worst when it came to COVID-19 deaths, “it is what it is.”  

The U.S. Senate confirmation process might well lead to present or future Cabinet secretary positions opening up that Biden could well fill with a member of the AAPI community. And numerous other senior-level, Senate-confirmed posts are also still to be filled. 

I was honored to serve as a U.S. ambassador under George W. Bush, continuing into the Obama administration — by some accounts, only the fourth U.S. ambassador ever of Chinese heritage — and saw firsthand the benefits of diversity and inclusion in my own engagement with government and non-government counterparts. The new administration might well fill such sub-Cabinet and ambassadorial posts with a diversity of Americans. That’s a start, but for a once silent, too often stereotyped “model minority,” now is not a time for the AAPI community to settle. 

The reality remains that even the most “woke” administrations must be judged by their reality, not their rhetoric. Those who would seek to take pride in the diversity of any president’s nominations and appointments and argue that representation matters — as it most surely does, and at the highest Cabinet levels — should not likewise seek to argue that this misstep by the upcoming administration does not matter. 

As AAPI, Black and Hispanic leaders said in the letter to Biden, “Close to equal is not equal.” 

Curtis S. Chin served as the U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007-2010 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  

Tags AAPI Barack Obama CAPAC Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Donald Trump Elaine Chao Elaine Chao Executive branch of the United States government Federal government of the United States George W. Bush Government Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Judy Chu Neera Tanden White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

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