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Why aren’t more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden’s Cabinet?

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As this week’s inaugural activities commence, I need to say that I’m disappointed with President-elect Joe Biden. In appointing his Cabinet, he had an opportunity to build an administration that, in his words, “looks like America.” And so, I waited to see if, in fact, Biden’s America looked like my vision of America. 

I, and many of my varied diaspora from the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community, worked hard, put in the time and effort to present to Biden a deep, experience-rich pool of talent that our diverse population can offer.

And while Biden has, without question, built a diverse record-setting Cabinet and has avoided the nepotism of the current administration, he’s missed an opportunity to include all of America in his Cabinet and specifically AAPI. 

Previous administrations did better. Former President George W. Bush nominated Norman Mineta, for example, to serve as secretary of Transportation and cleared the senatorial confirmation in record time with record bipartisan votes. Former President Barack Obama nominated the first Cabinet-level scientist and Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, to be his secretary of Energy. Obama also nominated the former Gov. of Washington Gary Locke to be secretary of Commerce and Gen. Eric Shinseki to be secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

These were all historic appointments and Biden had an opportunity to build on this and further the legacy and leadership opportunities for AAPI communities in the United States. 

For example, David S. Kim, who is the secretary of the California State Transportation Agency (the largest state-based transportation agency in America), could’ve been Transportation secretary. Howard Koh — who was assistant secretary for health under Obama’s administration — could’ve been Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary. There were very qualified options on the table. 

Biden made promises along the campaign trail, but never went the full measure to build the big tent or act affirmatively beyond his comfort area. Nor did his advisors, all decent individuals, fully engage a greater circle to seek out talent beyond their frame of mind. They didn’t think or ask, “who is not at the table?”

We weren’t at the table during this decision-making process and we aren’t now. Yes, Katherine Tai, nominated recently as U.S. Trade representative, is a start but much more is needed.

To be clear, those who’ve been nominated for Biden’s Cabinet are value-based and ethics-driven. My point is we can have those traits embedded in a greater circle of diversity without giving up our vision, vitality and commitment to serve.

But the fact that the diaspora of AAPI were not appointed to Biden’s Cabinet speaks to the parameters of the Biden administration’s understanding, vision and appreciation of the AAPI-American constituency. 

I’m saddened and disappointed. We don’t exist if we’re not at the table. We exist on the menu of campaign contributions and votes; that’s where we count.  Diversity means diversity and it’s not a code word for certain people of color but of the full rainbow. 

Biden still has time to course correct. Meanwhile, I’ll keep squeaking for grease.

Michael Honda is a former Democratic member of U.S. Congress, who represented California’s Silicon Valley region for over 16 years. Follow him on Twitter @RepMikeHonda.

Tags AAPI Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Barack Obama biden administration Biden cabinet David S. Kim Diversity Eric Shinseki George W. Bush Howard Koh Joe Biden Katherine Tai

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