Remember when this picture had everyone talking back in January? I do.
I remember getting ready for work while being on the phone with my mother. I was jetlagged from a business trip and had run out of coffee, so I wasn’t really paying attention (sorry Mom!). I was just throwing out phrases like “you are so right” and “I can’t believe he did that!” while putting on some eyeliner, when she caught on to me and demanded that I go to the New York Times website. Above the very same picture you see here was the headline “Obama’s Remade Inner Circle has an All-Male Look, So Far”.
“Yea, Mom. I get it. It’s messed up — all dudes,” I said.
My very Southern, voted for Bush (twice), white mother replied, “How come no one mentioned that they’re all mostly white?”
I read through the article and looked at the picture. She was right. The esteemed NY Times journalist and me, the Stanford educated Ethnic Studies major, had apparently missed a very big piece of the story. Besides the President, I could only see one other person of color in the picture, Attorney General Eric Holder. It seems ironic that the nation’s first African-American president–who owes his victories to young people, women, minorities, and the low-income– would get into hot water for lack of diversity among his top advisers.
Shortly after the circulation of this picture, taken December 29th, 2012, President Obama pushed back. He advised for critics to “wait until they’ve see all my appointments…before they rush to judgment.”
So, I waited. President Obama completed nominations for his second Cabinet this week and I did the tallies. For background, the Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments—the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and the Attorney General.
People of color are represented by just 3, all male, members: Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, and Secretary-Nominee of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Women are represented by just 4, all white, members: Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary-Nominee of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
This means that the President’s second-term cabinet is over 80% white and 75% male. I’m not “rushing to judgment”, but this is just plain unacceptable.
My frustration isn’t coming from a sense of entitlement or an affirmative action perspective. I’m worried that the voices, histories, and concerns of America’s vulnerable communities will be left out during the policy making process. The best example of this I can offer is the Secretary-Nominee of the Department of Commerce, Penny Pritzker. Ms. Prtizker’s past raises red flags about understanding the struggles of low-income and communities of color: While chairman of the now-failed Superior Bank, she advocated for subprime lending. Part of her $1.25 billion net-worth is shielded in offshore trusts. Finally, she is a board member of Hyatt Hotels, which has been boycotted by organizations like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) for physical abuse of their housekeeping staff. I want decision-makers that are fighting to stop practices like these, not perpetuating them.
I’m disappointed that President Obama didn’t appoint more diverse cabinet members, but I won’t deny that he’s made progress elsewhere. The President is known for his track record of nominating women to important positions, and earlier this month he nominated Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency (created after the 2008 crisis to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Rep. Watt, an African-American civil rights leader, has a track record of advocating for minority businesses and ending predatory lending. Some consumer advocacy groups believe his background is an indication he will implement progressive policies and bring reform to the housing market. .
I hope the nominees during President Obama’s second term take the opportunity to use diversity as a resource in their decision-making process. This is a wildly diverse country. People and communities from all sorts of ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds will be impacted by the decisions that the president and his advisers make. If their voices are in the room when those decisions are made, the outcome can only be better for it.