The days right after an election are an ideal time for political parties to work on fixing bad habits. For Democrats, that would mean kicking the increasingly dated custom of declaring race, ethnicity and gender factors in filling leadership positions. Demands on President-elect Joe Biden to put these considerations front and center show a failure to understand how politically poisonous identity politics have become.
Happily, Biden is choosing people who are highly qualified for the job. But unhappily, and no small irony, focusing on their identity only subtracts attention from their impressive careers.
Biden’s pick to head the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a world-renowned economist. She’s already been chair of the Federal Reserve, for heaven’s sake. And so, why open news stories with a proclamation that, if confirmed, Yellen will become “the first female Treasury secretary”? Is she now a diversity hire?
No one elected the identity professionals now pressuring Biden. And it’s unclear whether members of the groups they profess to represent want their services. For example, a Washington Post/Ipsos poll asked African Americans early this year whether a white presidential candidate’s pick of a black vice president would excite them. Some 73 percent responded little or not at all.
Yet Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is now calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat with a black woman. Bass says she’s available, by the way.
Note that her demand comes one month after voters in the very Democratic state of California rejected a plan to restore affirmative action in public hiring.
A problem with succumbing to the pressure is it’s never enough. Much fuss was made over Biden’s naming what The Washington Post described as the “first Hispanic American” to head the Department of Homeland Security. That would be the very capable Alejandro Mayorkas.
“Latino advocates,” Bloomberg News says, were then pushing Biden to name New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as health and human services secretary. Though angry when those efforts seemed to fail, the activists now seem pleased that Biden has named another Latino, Xavier Becerra, to that prominent post.
You have to feel for Becerra. A graduate of Stanford Law School and California attorney general, he could have competed for the job with anyone. Now many think he was named to lead HHS because of his coloration.
Barack Obama becoming the first black president was a big deal. Nothing against Cori Bush, but how big a deal is her becoming the first black Missouri congresswoman, as many media felt obliged to put in their leads?
The New York Times had a twofer — actually, two of them — when Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both from New York, were elected as the “1st Gay Black Members of Congress.” Torres also considers himself Latino, so that makes three identities.
Lest we forget, an openly gay man named Barney Frank spent 32 years representing a demographically mixed district in Massachusetts. A gay man in Congress is not really news. That Torres was a highly effective member of the New York City Council should have been reason enough to support him.
Biden has pledged to name the first black woman to the Supreme Court, if and when he can fill a vacancy. I have no problem with a qualified black female Supreme Court justice. The problem is the pledge.
Biden told CNN that he understands it’s the advocacy groups’ “job to push me.” The Democratic Party would do itself a big favor by pushing back on the diversity fixation. It’s good for neither the party nor the talented people it burdens with unnecessary labels.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.