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5 important ways that a Joe Biden White House could address systemic racism

July 7, 2020, 5:38 PM UTC

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August is fast approaching, and with it comes presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s self-imposed deadline for picking his running mate. Biden has said that he’ll announce the “veepstakes” winner at the start of the month and that the pick will be a woman.

As his advisers enter their final stages of vetting, speculation has run rampant: Will it be Sen. Kamala Harris? Stacey Abrams? Sen. Tammy Duckworth?

It’s still unclear who the former vice president will make his own second-in-command. Many Democratic influencers are making the case for a Black woman to take on the role, especially as the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer has led to national unrest over structural racism.

A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that in the wake of ongoing protests, 46% of Democrats now say it’s important for Biden to choose a candidate of color as his running mate, up from 36% in early April.

“Biden has been characterized as a bridge to the next generation of leadership, and this is an opportunity to do that,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network elevating the political power of women of color.

But that bridge doesn’t just include the VP position. There are a number of other significant roles that Biden could fill with diverse picks that would have a significant impact on the future of the country. 

“There have to be people of color in positions that are visible and that are at the table, period,” echoed Moe Vela, former senior adviser to Joe Biden and current chief transparency officer of TransparentBusiness, a people management service. 

Over the past 20 years, Vela has noticed a pattern in which the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and secretary of Labor tend to be the go-to roles for minority appointees in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I hope that those kinds of predictable minority placements will be shattered in the Biden administration,” he said. 

Here are five ways that could happen should Biden win. 

It starts with the transition team 

The transition team is the group that sets the priorities for the first 100 days in office and takes care of staffing at all levels of the administration. That makes it the entry point for incorporating diverse voices and perspectives throughout a possible Biden White House. By filling the team with women and people of color across the spectrum, the campaign would signal that Biden’s pledge of diversity isn’t just chatter.

The Trump administration left a number of positions unfilled, something the U.S. is now feeling the repercussions of as key agencies meant to deal with health crises are woefully understaffed. But, said Allison, that gives the Biden campaign an opportunity. “I think the transition team could identify what those positions are very early on and make sure that experts from a variety of communities are tapped to fill those roles,” she said.

Late last month Biden announced that he had officially begun forming his transition team. Leading it is former Delaware senator and longtime political ally Ted Kaufman, who also led his vice presidential transition team in 2008. Joining him is Yohannes Abraham, who worked in the Obama administration and will handle the day-to-day of the team. 

“Vice President Biden’s transition—like his administration to follow—will prioritize the following core values: diversity of ideology and background; talent to address society’s most complex challenges; integrity and the highest ethical standards to serve the American people and not special interests; and transparency to enable trust and visibility at every stage,” Kaufman said in a statement.

Other members who will soon join include Avril Haines, former principal deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA; Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal; Angela Ramirez, chief of staff to Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján and former Congressional Hispanic Caucus executive director; Evan Ryan, who worked with Biden in the White House; and Julie Siegel, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s senior counsel for economic policy.

“We’ve been cut totally out of the current administration,” said Allison, about President Trump’s inner circle, which is overwhelmingly white and male, with one Black cabinet member and one Black domestic policy adviser. The White House does not disclose how many Black staffers work in the Trump administration, and public promises of efforts to increase diversity have fallen flat.

“It’s important to fill roles by proactively reaching out to communities of color and different groups who have been attacked and denigrated over the last four years and saying, ‘Look, we want you to see yourselves as part of this administration, and we will act and listen,’” said Allison of how the Biden campaign can counter that. “I think that’s going to be very important to signal early on.”

Create a secretary of Racial Justice

Recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality have extended across the country and into everyday life. This presents a Biden White House with the opportunity to acknowledge that unrest and create a cabinet-level position to deal with it in a permanent way, says Allison.

She points to a piece of legislation by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would create a “Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission” to act as an advisory body on legislation and policy impacted by systemic racism.

A similar sort of advisory board could be set up in the White House to ensure that executive policy focuses on equity and equality. The secretary (or Obama-style czar) would be charged with analyzing current policy to correct for racial disparities and even creating new government agencies to focus on that. “Having someone in the administration to work in concert with that would be a great thing,” said Allison. “Now is the time to think expansively about how to create the country we really want.”

Attorney general

The Department of Justice has the greatest capacity to move the needle on issues such as law enforcement misconduct and the disproportionate levels of incarcerating Black people in federal prisons.

“It all leads back to the Department of Justice,” said Vela, who was the first Hispanic person to serve in two senior executive roles in the White House, under vice presidents Al Gore and Biden. “It is the platform for the vast majority of what needs to be addressed. It can either further the divide or it can actually begin to heal the divide.” 

Just two Black Americans and two women have previously held the role. Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch both served under President Barack Obama, and Janet Reno served under President Bill Clinton.

Committing to appoint a minority or female to the head of the Department of Justice would send a “wide” message and also work to increase the safety of and diminish tensions between communities of color and police officers. 

Treasury secretary 

The Treasury has never had a Black or female secretary, and appointing one would be groundbreaking and symbolic.

Racial injustice is historically linked with economic injustice, and the agency that collects taxes, supervises banks, and enforces federal finance laws could make an immediate impact on ending systemically racist practices like redlining by banks

There’s also the Jackson issue. During the Obama administration there was a commitment by the secretary of Treasury to replace President Andrew Jackson—who oversaw the forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americans—on the $20 bill, which current Secretary Steve Mnuchin has not acted on.

“In some ways it was a precursor to what we see now with monuments coming down,” said Allison. “It’s more than symbolic; it’s around the role of government in reflecting the diversity of the people starting with the money.”

Senior advisers 

Secretary-level positions are important, but behind-the-scenes roles are just as crucial to a functioning White House.

The vice president “would be well-served by senior advisers and the executive team that he surrounds himself with that reflect all of these diverse voices,” said Vela. These roles include public outreach coordinators, policy directors, congressional relations directors, and deputy chiefs of staff.  

Transition team aside, it’s quite unlikely that a campaign that has not yet announced its vice presidential pick will start making promises about other positions, but Allison says it could happen as November approaches. 

“I was an advocate of coming out in force with an Avengers-type model: This is the depth and breadth of our leadership, and here’s what we’re offering America, and we’re already going to be operating as one,” she said.