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OPINION: Michael Eric Dyson says President-elect Biden is already building a diverse administration and the expressed frustrations from constituencies are premature
“You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” In all my years of listening to presidential rhetoric, and in all my studies of presidents interacting with Black folk, I’d never heard a president be that bold, that explicit and that transparent in acknowledging his debt to Black voters.
But that’s the message that President-elect Joe Biden had for the Black community in his victory speech on Nov. 7.
It was a tip of the hat to House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, the nation’s highest-ranking Black lawmaker, who, on Feb. 26, dramatically changed the 2020 presidential race when he endorsed the beleaguered former vice president.
“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.” It was a resounding gesture of gratitude to the Black women who turned out in record numbers to boost his third quest for the Oval Office into the winner’s circle.
For many, it was their first time hearing Biden speak frankly and openly about his warm relationship to the Black community. But I remember attending the Black History Month Celebration at the former vice president’s residence in February 2014, when Biden quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who said that voting “is the foundation stone for political action.” Biden concurred.
“As a Caucasian American, that suggests that the single most significant fight for African Americans was the right to vote,” the vice president said. “Without the right to vote nothing else much mattered. It all rested on the largesse of the rest of the community.” It was the exercise of that fundamental right that had been unjustly denied to Black folk that helped put Biden in the White House.
Of course, the Black vote alone didn’t give Joe Biden the presidency, but he knows that we were the ones who believed in him and stood by him when many others harbored doubts. Our community’s faith in Joe Biden proved true, and not only did he continue to perform well with Black voters, he assembled a broad coalition that also included white, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous voters, young and old, urban and rural, LGBTQ+.
Biden even managed to snag an impressive cross-section of political ideologies — not only Democrats, but some Republicans, and even larger numbers of independents and progressives, and a healthy dose of moderates and conservatives.
That broad coalition of more than 80 million Americans rejected the politics of hatred and division embodied by Donald Trump for the last four years. That was the first step: Donald Trump, an unreconstructed racist and supporter of white supremacy was convincingly defeated and will soon have to leave the White House.
Now that Joe Biden is president-elect, Black Americans are right to hold him accountable and to focus on what he will do, whom he nominates to leadership positions in his administration, and what policies he will pursue, prioritize, and deliver for our communities.
And let’s be honest, even as Black folk loved and appreciated the leadership of Barack Obama, we didn’t often insist that his administration address the needs and interests of Black folk, who were his, and the Democratic Party’s, most loyal constituency. We will not make the same mistake with Joe Biden.
In addition to the remarkable Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian to serve as Vice President, the Biden-Harris Administration has already made history on cabinet picks and other personnel decisions.
That includes the first woman to lead the CIA, first woman Treasury Secretary, first Latino DHS Secretary, first Latino HHS Secretary, the first woman of color and first South Asian American to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the first African-American Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, the first African American to lead the Council of Economic Advisors and the first African-American Defense Secretary.
The cabinet and senior White House staff announced to date better represents the diversity of America than anything we have seen before. Half of the cabinet positions announced have gone to people of color. Of the 25 senior White House positions filled — six are Black, one is Arab American, five are Latino, and two are AAPI.
In addition, there are many Black people, people of color, and women in leadership positions across the Biden-Harris Transition, Presidential Inaugural Committee, and the incoming administration. This is what building a team of experts that looks like America means. This is what it means to translate campaign promises into governing principles.
Some folks have voiced frustration with the level of diversity they have seen from the Biden-Harris team so far or with specific choices, and others have gone on to accuse Biden of tokenism.
While Black frustration is understandable, that criticism is neither accurate nor fair. And, quite frankly, given that many positions are still being filled, it seems premature. Certainly, this is the time to weigh in, and Black folk must articulate their goals and aspirations, but we must acknowledge that building a strong, diverse team should be done carefully and methodically. That’s the opposite of tokenism, which was all too common in previous administrations.
The impact of tokenism is not having any, or at best, one or a very small number of people of color in the rooms where decisions are made. We surely deserve to be in the room where it happens, and in so doing, we must shoulder the burden of representing everyone who looks like us, despite our differences in experiences and struggles.
People and representation matter, of course, but more important than only having a Black face in a high place is that the policies that a diverse and representative administration can put in place are what’s needed to protect and improve Black lives.
The African American experience has long fallen short of the so-called American Dream, but the recent syndemic – the synergy of pandemics in 2019 has exacerbated inequities in Black life. In the last year, the global virus COVID-19 collided with the racial pandemic Black Americans have lived with since 1619. The current administration failed miserably at responding to both and became a megaphone for America’s worst instincts and the most vicious denunciation of our humanity.
The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others opened the minds of a lot of people. Black Lives Matter gained widespread support from large numbers, corporations, and even the NFL. White Americans appear to recognize that in encounters with police, it’s not how Black people behave or react, it’s the color of our skin that too often dictates how we are treated.
If the broad coalition, including white Americans, who elected Joe-Biden understands that race is too often a determinant in how justice is served, they can also see how it’s also too often a determinant of achieving the American Dream – of home ownership, of small business success, of school quality and graduation rates, of surviving a pregnancy, and yes, of surviving a global pandemic.
In a new administration, we need leaders to end the disparities that have besieged our existence for hundreds of years. This won’t be easy and will require struggle and a fight. Joe Biden is not perfect and will not be a perfect president. There will be disagreements, and I will be the first to use my voice to demand we – and he – do better when it’s needed.
But throughout his career and his presidential campaign, Joe Biden has shown that he will listen to different viewpoints and try to forge connections and find common ground. That’s what it will take for America to live up to its motto — E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one.”
For the next four years, we will have a president who hears us, sees us, and every day, works closely with dedicated, talented people just like us.
As Biden concluded his speech that day in his vice-presidential residence in 2014, “this kind of malarkey can’t go on. This fight has been too long, this fight has been too hard, to do anything other than win.” As a Baptist preacher for more than 40 years, all I can say is, “Amen.”
Michael Eric Dyson is a professor at Vanderbilt Unversity and the author of Long Time Coming.
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