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Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats’ Short-Lived Opposition to All White Biden Nominees

Senator Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 11, 2020. (Carolyn Kaster/Reuters)

On the menu today: Two Democratic senators threaten to vote against all white nominees from the Biden administration, an account of poor logistical planning in New York City’s vaccination effort, and an observation about that awful Atlanta mass shooting at massage parlors.

Why You Can’t Placate the Race-Obsessed

Is there any scenario where you can envision President-elect Joe Biden getting together with his top advisers after the election and declaring, “Now, remember, whatever we do, we’re not going to let any Asian Americans become cabinet secretaries”?

Biden can be an insensitive, ignorant clod. You probably recall the time he blurted out, upon meeting an Indian American at a political event, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” But it’s difficult to imagine Biden deliberately setting out to exclude a particular ethnic group. The man has plenty of flaws, but an instinct to reject others based on race isn’t one of them.

In fact, since winning the election, Biden has nominated:

  • Katherine Tai to be U.S. trade representative
  • Vanita Gupta, daughter of Indian immigrants, to be associate attorney general
  • Nellie Liang to be undersecretary for domestic finance at the Department of the Treasury
  • Julie Su to be deputy secretary of labor
  • Lina Khan, daughter of Pakistani immigrants, to be commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission
  • Uzra Zeya, another daughter of Indian immigrants, to be State Department’s undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights
  • Dilawar Syed to be deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
  • Kiran Ahuja to be director of the United States Office of Personnel Management
  • Rohit Chopra to be director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau

Neera Tanden is also a child of immigrants from India, and she was nominated to be director of the Office of Management and Budget . . . and we remember what happened with that one.

And those are just the executive-branch positions that require Senate confirmation, so far; this isn’t counting all the Asian Americans working in the Biden White House and administration in presidentially appointed positions.

But Senator Tammy Duckworth spent a chunk of Tuesday contending that Biden and his top advisers were somehow insufficiently committed to having Asian Americans serve in his administration:

Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and the first Thai American woman in Congress, said it was ‘unacceptable’ that Biden has named no Asian American Cabinet secretaries and vowed to oppose nominees on the floor ‘until they figure this out.’ Her gambit could prove a substantial obstacle to any future Biden nominees in the 50-50 Senate, depending on whether Duckworth holds firm after a two-week Senate recess that starts after this week.

Later on Tuesday, Duckworth and her colleague Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told reporters that they intended to vote against any Biden “nominees who aren’t minorities.”

Instead of judging those nominees by their merits, those senators pledged to judge them by the color of their skin. If only we had a word to describe that phenomenon.

By Tuesday night, Duckworth had backed away from the threat, but not before making comments that suggested certain high-profile figures didn’t meet her threshold for being sufficiently representative of their ancestries:

Duckworth told reporters that a Monday evening call between Senate Democrats and Biden aides was the “trigger” for her holdup plans. After she asked about Asian American representation in the Biden administration, Duckworth recalled, White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon made a reference to Vice President Kamala Harris’ South Asian American heritage that the senator called “incredibly insulting.”

Oh, was it now?

Kamala Harris doesn’t count because only her mother immigrated from India? How does the vice president feel about a U.S. senator declaring she’s not Asian enough to qualify as an Asian American? Are the self-described anti-racists going to bring back the “one drop rule” in racial purity to ensure sufficient representation? Or is Duckworth hinting that in her mind, Indian Americans don’t really count as Asian Americans? The senator is free to define the term as she sees fit, but let’s set the wayback machine to 2016 and take a look at how the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans addressed the potential nomination of Appeals Court judge Sri Srinivasan to the U.S. Supreme Court:

Judge Srinivasan was born in India and raised in Kansas, and his nomination and confirmation would be historic in several aspects:

  • Judge Srinivasan would be the first Asian American Supreme Court Justice.
  • Judge Srinivasan would be the first Hindu Supreme Court Justice.
  • Judge Srinivasan would be the first immigrant Supreme Court Justice since 1962.

Indeed, Judge Srinivasan already has made history, serving as the first Asian American judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

More importantly, characterizing Judge Srinivasan’s nomination as the first “Indian American” limits how momentous and historic his nomination and confirmation would be for the entire Asian American community — not just for Indian Americans and not just for South Asian Americans.

To be clear, Indian Americans are Asian Americans.

But let’s go back to this notion that Biden has somehow done Asian Americans wrong because he didn’t name a cabinet secretary of Asian heritage. By no measure can you plausibly argue that the Biden cabinet isn’t diverse. The fact that Biden nominated so many Asian Americans to other positions dispels the notion that he’s got some axe to grind with this particular group. In fact, Katherine Tai, as head of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, is a cabinet-level official; she just doesn’t have the title ‘secretary.’ Duckworth and Hirono had to really narrowly define their categories to find a situation that could even remotely be painted as exclusionary.

How many Asian Americans out there feel as if their sense of value, recognition, and respect depends upon seeing someone who looks like themselves as Secretary of Agriculture or running the Department of Housing and Urban Development? Did Elaine Chao’s presence as secretary of transportation during the Trump years mean that his cabinet was better for Asian Americans than Biden’s is? Was George W. Bush’s better because Chao was his secretary of labor and Norman Mineta was his secretary of transportation?

In fact, Duckworth and Hirono have just made life more difficult for Asian Americans who want to serve in the Biden administration. If, God forbid, some cabinet secretary got hit by a bus tomorrow, and Biden promptly nominated an Asian-American replacement, how would that new nominee be perceived and greeted? Would people believe the new nominee was genuinely Biden’s best choice for the job? Or would they believe the new nominee was the best Asian-American option, and a choice designed to placate Duckworth and Hirono?

Politico’s evening newsletter argued the lesson was thatThe Democratic Party holds up diversity as a key value and embraces intersectionality — but realizing that vision is much more complicated as more Americans (rightly) demand a seat at the table.”

But does this fight really represent “demanding a seat at the table”? Or is it demanding a particular seat at the table?

Or is the lesson that the likes of Duckworth and Hirono will always be looking for some reason to get mad and will be extremely quick accuse others — even their allies and leaders of their party — of deliberate discrimination, even when it’s absurd?

Because if Joe Biden can be accused of being discriminatory against Asian Americans, and if Kamala Harris doesn’t really count as being “representative” of Asian Americans, then terms such as “discriminatory” and “representative” don’t really mean anything anymore. They can be stretched and twisted and applied to any situation, regardless of facts or context, and used as a cudgel to try to bully someone into agreeing to a particular outcome.

Biden made his choices, and none of the cabinet secretaries turned out to be Asian American. That’s the way it’s going to turn out sometimes. There are only 14 cabinet jobs where the title begins with “Secretary.” But you don’t need the title “Secretary” to be part of the cabinet.

In most administrations, “cabinet-level positions” include the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Director of National Intelligence, the Ambassador to the United Nations, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, and . . . the U.S. Trade Representative. Biden has an Asian American in his cabinet! He just doesn’t have one that has the title “Secretary”!

Do you want worse race relations? Because two senators pledging to vote against all white nominees over a nonsense claim that an administration is being discriminatory and that the vice president, who was born to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, doesn’t count for either heritage is how you get worse race relations.

For All of the Vaccination Planning, It Feels as If No One Did Any Planning

The website EpicenterNYC offers a lengthy and fascinating account of its staffers working as volunteers, trying to help the city’s elderly, sick, and poor get vaccinated:

Most people come to us in frustration. They or someone they love have heard they qualify but cannot figure out how to get a vaccine. Essential workers and elderly people were given priority in eligibility but are precisely the people who cannot spend hours on a computer to book an appointment, so many have been left behind… Every day, we hear from so many eligible people who haven’t gotten their vaccines because of concerns over access, fear, time or language issues. To be clear, many of them have been eligible for months.

I think “vaccine skepticism” is a vastly overstated problem and complicated, unmanageable, and user-unfriendly appointment and registration systems are a vastly understated problem. I suspect we have a leadership class that really likes to make public-service announcements and advertising campaigns and wants to respond to the situation with those tools because they’re familiar with them. Unfortunately, all the PSAs and web videos and commercials in the world can’t make much of a difference if people can’t easily get in the door and get their shots.

Or, as the EpicenterNYC team observes, get to the sites easily:

Their residents live in more sprawling areas, perhaps not walking distance to a pharmacy or train line. There are often no vaccine sites near them and, in the case of Staten Island, booking elderly couples together felt nearly impossible. Our volunteers “gamed” the system, repeatedly hitting refresh and would assign multiple people to ONE client to secure them an appointment on the same day as a spouse… We get questions about stairs, steps, places to sit, parking, distancing and elevators. We tell people we are not equipped to answer. However, we have encouraged our interns and other staffers/volunteers who get the vaccine to chronicle their experience with an eye toward answering these questions (more important than the selfie!) and post them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The populations most concerned are not necessarily on these platforms but we hope word of mouth spreads.

ADDENDUM: It is accurate to observe that the Atlanta shooter’s motive was not one of simple anti-Asian hatred or the pandemic or Trump’s use of the term “China virus.” But as I noted yesterday, we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that the shooter’s attitudes about sex were wrapped up in how he perceived Asian women, and vice versa. The shooter could have found non-Asian women involved in the sex trade in other parts of Atlanta, but he targeted those particular women in those three particular massage parlors. A fixation on race may not have been the shooter’s primary motivation, but it probably wasn’t completely unrelated to his actions, either.


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