I neither expected sparks nor extreme surprises as President-elect Joe Biden begin to announce his Cabinet. I did expect diversity, and we’ve seen it. But I didn’t expect the number of Obama-era retreads to be included in this Cabinet. As I write this in mid-December, I can hardly contain my disappointment that Tom Vilsack, the man who fired Shirley Sherrod for specious reasons, is being asked, again, to lead the Department of Agriculture. Many of us had hoped that Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who served several years on the House Committee on Agriculture, would get this position. Instead, she has was nominated to be the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), still a Cabinet position.
HUD, however, is one of those “Black folk or people of color” positions. Robert Weaver, an African American who holds a doctorate in economics from Harvard, was the first HUD secretary. Noted attorney and civil rights activist Patricia Roberts Harris was the eighth. Some HUD secretaries were quite distinguished and qualified, others (like present Secretary Ben Carson) much less so. In any case, Congresswoman Fudge will do an exemplary job, no matter where she serves. But I am among those, including the legacy civil rights leaders, who is not excited about Vilsack returning to Agriculture.
There is no one under 50 among the Biden nominees. There are few progressives among the Biden nominees. A glimmer of hope lies in the fact that the Council of Economic Advisers leans somewhat left and is also labor-centered, with the nominated chair, Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton University labor economist. The others, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, have past relationships with the Economic Policy Institute, a worker-focused think tank in D.C. (I serve on their board). It is also hopeful that Janet Yellen has been nominated as Treasury secretary. She is worker-focused and the first woman to hold the position. But in retreading Vilsack and Kerry, choosing international expert Susan Rice to lead the Domestic Policy Council and choosing other mainstream moderates, Biden has thrown ice water on the hopes and dreams of the progressives who put their interests aside to unite around him.
Where is the appointment for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose youth and knowledge will bring much to the Cabinet? Who will be the secretary of Labor? Bernie Sanders would like the position and is highly qualified for it. But so, too, is Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, or Bill Spriggs, an African American labor economist who was an assistant secretary under President Obama. What about the attorney general? Of the four front-runners, only one, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, is African American. There are opportunities for the Cabinet to be younger, more progressive and more diverse. President-elect Biden has to consider their concerns.
For a week or so, I’ve been encouraging patience, telling people we need to wait to see “the whole thing” of this Cabinet. But I’m reminded (thank you, Congressman Jim Clyburn) of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” that Black people are always waiting, always being cautioned to be patient, always being told that it is not yet time for our concerns to be addressed. We have been cautioned on patience by both our friends and by those who would oppose us.
President-elect Joe Biden still has selections to make, and he can make them younger and more diverse. I’d also encourage him to speak up about the racism that has increased in our streets with these “Proud Boys” defacing Washington, D.C., churches and roaming through our streets picking fights with people.
We need a strong voice to stand against this racism. It wouldn’t necessarily come from the mainstream, moderate and middling. Those like the so-called Proud Boys (what are they proud of?) aren’t likely to listen to Biden since they’ve been given the thumbs-up by the tantrum-throwing loser who can’t figure out how to concede this election. But President-elect Biden would be well advised to speak firmly about this racism. Perhaps he should, as NAACP President Derrick Johnson said, appoint a race czar, just as he has selected the climate czar in John Kerry. In any case, the middling and the moderate, those who enjoy the status quo, aren’t the ones to fix a mess that has been brewing for more than 400 years. President-elect Biden has never been especially bold, but this is a moment for boldness.