Donald Trump is keeping his promise to take us back to an earlier America.
His cabinet picks, now complete, are from a time machine set to somewhere around 1970: Overwhelmingly white, male, older and very, very rich.
Of 15 formal slots, all but two are white, and all but two are men. With so few women and minorities, this is the least diverse of any cabinet slate since Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. And for the first time since 1989, there is not a single Latinx selection.
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The outliers include secretary of Housing and Urban Development-designate Ben Carson, an African American man, and secretary of Transportation-designate Elaine Chao, an Asian American woman. Another woman, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Department of Education, is white.
In a country that’s getting blacker and browner all the time—which defines the business case for diversity in governance—this development is deeply alarming. But it is also, in spirit and practice, a great unwinding of what was could have been a crowning achievement of the Obama administration. By the last two years of his term, Obama had managed to create the most diverse federal bureaucracy in history; being careful to highlight and include experts from the disability and LGBT communities as well.
From a Washington Post report in 2015:
University of California at Berkeley law school professor Anne Joseph O’Connell has compiled a database of all government appointees confirmed by the Senate to more than 80 important policy positions between January 1977 and August 2015. O’Connell said that her research reveals that Obama has placed women and minorities in 53.5 percent of those posts. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, by contrast, installed women and minorities in 25.6 percent, while President Clinton’s number was 37.5 percent.
It was part of the plan from the beginning. Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama told raceAhead last May, “I was the co-chair of his transition team, and his direction to us was to ensure that his administration reflected the diversity of this country.” But, particularly in the middle years of his tenure, critics were deeply disappointed by his apparent lack of progress.
By 2015, things had changed, and optimistic experts believed that the benefits of diversity would have a long-term, transformational effect on the nation. “We have now settled the fact that diversity is a permanent part of the federal government,” Robert Raben, a Democratic consultant who works on diversity issues, told the Washington Post.
What once seemed settled, now feels hopelessly naïve. Trump doesn’t seem to have a single binder that doesn’t have a friend or contributor’s name in it. There’s no mandate from the top, no commitment to the exchange of ideas, and no interest in viewpoints from alternate perspectives. From their skin tone, to their gender, to their wealth, Trump’s appointees tend to look a lot like, well, Donald Trump.
The fight for diversity in leadership is often hard and never finished. But its duration also means that no change, even one that comes with a rousing new slogan and bright red hat, is permanent.