UPDATED: 11:00 a.m. ET, March 2, 2023
The promise to have a cabinet that “looks like America” has been more than kept by Joe Biden. In fact, it’s been all but a mandate as the 46th president of the United States has enjoyed the distinction of having the most diverse group of executive branch leaders and presidential advisers in American history.
Six months after Keisha Lance Bottoms took over as the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE), the former mayor of Atlanta said she is departing the position.
On Tuesday, it was announced that former Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin would become the new OPE director, Politico reported.
“Mayor Benjamin is a longtime public servant, who has served the people of South Carolina for over two decades statewide and as a three-term mayor of Columbia,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “As a former President of both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the African American Mayors Association, Steve’s deep relationships with communities across the country will serve our Administration and the American public well.”
Biden’s first OPE director, former Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, stepped down from the position in April 2022.
Now Biden will have the luxury of having another powerful and influential Black person in the White House to turn to for shrewd political and legal expertise. Kamala Harris has already been playing an outsized role in Biden’s administration in a departure from the subtle functions traditionally expected from vice presidents.
With his cabinet and senior advisers, Biden has put multiple Black people in a position to make history and work in capacities that can not only make a serious difference but will also come at a time when their consequential roles are arguably needed more than ever by the U.S. government and public alike.
And for all the Black people in Biden’s cabinet or named as his top advisers, there were many, many others who were also under consideration. Household names like Stacey Abrams, whose voting rights organization Fair Fight’s groundwork in Georgia helped to flip the state blue for the first time in 30 years with election results that all but sewed up Biden’s historic election. She was also widely credited with helping to secure last year’s runoff elections that gave Democrats the edge in the U.S. Senate. Abrams is now running for governor of Georgia in a race she lost four years ago following a massive Republican-led voter suppression effort.
Other familiar names of Black people Biden reportedly considered for his cabinet include, but certainly were not limited to Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
But Biden also reportedly considered Black people for high-profile jobs despite their lack of immediate name recognition.
For instance, Darrell Blocker, who has more than 30 of experience in the U.S. intelligence community, specializes in counterterrorism, security and intelligence, with a focus on Africa, Iran and North Korea, and has served in 10 foreign countries. He could have easily been nominated for CIA director. And Raphael Bostic, the first African American president of one of the 12 Federal Reserve regional banks, is certainly qualified to lead the Treasury Department.
Biden ultimately decided to go with other, equally qualified choices for those two cabinet positions. But he did name a Black Treasury deputy.
There was a little controversy over Biden’s decision regarding who would lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been accused of ignoring Black farmers’ pleas for federal assistance. Civil rights activists described Biden’s choice of Tom Vilsack, a white man who served in that same role under Obama, as a snub to Shirley Sherrod, the Black woman and former Agriculture employee who Vilsack fired under unfortunate circumstances.
Sherrod, who served as the USDA’s Georgia Director of Rural Development, was fired after Vilsack viewed a nefariously edited 38-second video clip provided by Andrew Breitbart — for whom the right-wing online news site is named — during an address she gave to the NAACP that was presented to seem like she refused federal assistance to a white farmer because of the color of his skin. The full, unedited video was later published showing that Sherrod actually told the audience she was able to use the encounter as a learning mechanism in the broader context of race relations and felt even more compelled to help the white farmer.
Sherrod rebuffed offers from Vilsack and Obama to reinstate her employment in a role that was in a completely different capacity from the one she had been working.
In was in that context that Biden still decided Vilsack was the best candidate for the job.
With that said, Biden’s commitment to racial diversity in his administration is well documented. That has continued since his election, starting with his transition team that was stacked with Black policy leaders. He’s also recently nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April, she became the first Black woman ever confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Could Biden have nominated more Black folks for more positions? Of course.
Did he leave Black folks hanging with his cabinet picks, though?
That’s a question this writer is leaving up to the reader to answer. But perhaps the below list of Black people playing key roles in Biden’s historic administration can. Keep reading to find them listed in alphabetical order.
1. Adewale Adeyemo, Deputy Treasury SecretarySource:Twitter
Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo was picked to be the Deputy Treasury Secretary, making the Nigerian-born Obama era official the first Black person to ever serve in that role.
for a little more than a year. But his previous work at the Treasury Department is what likely made picking Adeyemo a no-brainer for Biden.
According to his bio on the website for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, for which he is a senior economic adviser, the lawyer who graduated with a J.D. from Yale Law School worked as the president of the Obama Foundation in Chicago and “held several management positions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, including senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, as well as chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s provisions on macroeconomic policy. Wally also served as the first chief of staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In that capacity, he helped to hire the bureau’s initial executive leadership team and build an agency devoted to protecting U.S. consumers.”
Adeyemo was also President Barack Obama‘s international economic adviser while serving as Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council from 2015-2017.
2. Gen. Lloyd Austin, Department of DefenseSource:Getty
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was selected by Joe Biden to lead the Department of Defense. If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense.
Austin made the cut amid Biden getting pressure from Black and Latino leaders for him to name more minorities to his cabinet. It was unclear if that compelled Biden to act.
There is a law for secretaries of defense to have established civilian status for at least seven years. Austin, 67, who had an illustrious career in the Army for more than 40 years, has been retired for fewer than five years.
The only way to circumvent that rule is for Congress to grant a waiver, something that Democrats were highly resentful of when Donald Trump‘s Defense nominee Gen. James Mattis was given one and ultimately confirmed to the cabinet position. A Democrat-led Congress granting a waiver to Austin could be seen as hypocritical and be used as future political capital against them by Republicans.
Biden called Austin “the person we need in this moment” and said Congress should grant him a waiver just like it did with Mattis.
3. Stephen Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public EngagementSource:Getty
It was announced on March 1, 2023, that former Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin would become the new director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which works with state and local governments to increase dialogue between the Biden administration and American communities. Benjamin replaced former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who stepped into the position after former Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, stepped down from the position in April 2022.
4. Kirsten Clarke, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights DivisionSource:Getty
Kristen Clarke was nominated to serve as Assistant Attorney general of the Civil Rights Division under the Department of Justice. Clarke has maintained a formidable career, seeking to uphold justice through her work as the president and executive of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. One of her most notable cases was defending Taylor Dumpson, the first Black woman to serve as student government president at American University, who accused Andrew Anglin, a known neo-nazi and editor of the Daily Stormer, of inciting violence against her. Dumpson won her case and was awarded more than $700,000 in damages, according to The Washington Post.
Clarke previously headed the Civil Rights bureau of the New York Department of Law. She’s devoted her career to ensuring the upholding of justice and civil rights and will undoubtedly carry that legacy into her new position if confirmed. Clarke also worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where she focused on voting rights and election law.
“This job is about justice. It’s about equality. And under our DOJ, we’ll move closer to the TRUE meaning of equal justice under law. Honored to be nominated by @JoeBiden to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division,” Clarke tweeted after being nominated on Jan. 7.
5. Ashley Etienne, Kamala Harris’ Chief Communications Director
Ashley Etienne has a wealth of experience working for Democrats, including being the special assistant to President Barack Obama and the cabinet communications director at the White House. She was also a spokeswoman for Nancy Pelosi from 2012-2014.
Notably, Etienne led cabinet-wide communications efforts about the Black Lives Matter movement and Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that addresses and identified opportunities for boys and young men of color to help them accomplish their goals. In addition, Etienne was named by ESSENCE as one of the most powerful Black women in Obama’s White House.
Etienne will undoubtedly work in tandem with Symone Sanders, who was introduced as a senior adviser and chief spokesperson for Harris.
6. Tina Flournoy, Vice President’s Chief Of Staff
Tina Flournoy was picked to be the vice president’s chief of staff. The transition for Flournoy shouldn’t be too difficult since that’s the same role she’s been working in for former President Bill Clinton. Flournoy has also had stints as a senior adviser to Democratic National Convention Chairman Howard Dean and as an Assistant to the President for Public Policy at the American Federation of Teachers.
Her bio on the website for Georgetown University — where she graduated from law school – detailed her extensive experience working on behalf of Democrats in positions that include: “traveling chief of staff to 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Finance Director for the Gore 2000 Presidential Campaign and Deputy to the Campaign Manager in the 1992 Clinton/Gore Presidential Transition Office and in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. Flournoy also served as General Counsel for the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Prior to joining the Convention team, Flournoy was Counsel for the DNC under Chairmen Paul Kirk and Ron Brown.”
According to journalist Yashar Ali, Flournoy is part of a group of Black women Democratic operatives and friends who call themselves “the Colored Girls.” They include Donna Brazile, Yolanda Caraway, Leah Daughtry and Minyon Moore.
7. Rep. Marcia Fudge, Housing and Urban DevelopmentSource:Getty
Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge has been picked to be the next U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary. The highly influential former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus was rumored to be angling to lead the Department of Agriculture, but President-Elect Joe Biden signaled he’d prefer her at HUD. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to lead the federal housing agency.
Politico reported that Fudge “has made increasing food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a primary issue” and “been fiercely critical of the nutrition rollbacks at USDA and other actions there, including the approach to scientific research.”
However, Biden decided that she would be a better fit to lead HUD.
8. Joelle Gamble, National Economic CouncilSource:Courtesy of Biden-Harris Transition Team
Joelle Gamble was named Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy on Dec. 21. Prior to her appointment, she served on the Biden-Harris Transition’s domestic economic policy team. Gamble was a principal at Omidyar Network, a social change venture established in 2004. She also worked as Senior Advisor to the President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, as well as the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s programming for enterprising leaders in public policy. A former community organizer, Gamble is a graduate of UCLA and Princeton University.
9. Shuwanza Goff, Deputy Director Of The White House Office Of Legislative AffairsSource:Joe Biden Communications Coalitions
As Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, Shuwanza Goff will be expected to help lead efforts to help propel Biden’s legislative efforts through Congress with a position carrying major weight, especially as the incoming administration rolls out policies promising to lengthen, ensure and enrich the lives of Black people in America.
Goff brings with her years of experience working with members of Congress and their aides to pass legislation. Biden’s team poached Goff from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who she worked for for 12 years. Prior to her new appointment, Goff made history as the first Black woman Floor Director for the House of Representatives under Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland. During that time, she set the legislative schedule and determined which bills came to the House floor.
10. Jamie Harrison, DNC ChairSource:Getty
Jaime Harrison was selected to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The former lobbyist set a Senate fundraising record with $57 million in the final full quarter of the campaign season when he was a candidate in South Carolina. Harrison will now have a chance to govern the entire Democratic Party.
11. Karine Jean-Pierre, White House Deputy Press SecretarySource:Getty
Karine Jean-Pierre, who was Kamala Harris’ campaign chief of staff and advised Joe Biden on strategy, communication and engaging with crucial communities such as Black people, women and progressives, will be the White House’s principal deputy press secretary. Prior to joining Biden’s campaign, Jean-Pierre was the chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, a liberal public policy advocacy group and political action committee.
12. Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality ChairpersonSource:Getty
Brenda Mallory, who was working at the Southern Environmental Law Center when she was called on to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, previously served as general counsel to the Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama and also worked in legal capacities for the Environmental Protection Agency.
In her new role, Mallory will be expected to help implement environmental policy and work with Biden to make them successful.
13. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Co-Chair of Biden’s Coronavirus Task Force
While this is far from a cabinet position, as co-chair of Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith will likely be advising the president for much of his first term as the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing in America.
The associate professor of internal medicine, public health and management at Yale University is also the associate dean for health equity research at Yale’s medical school who specializes in health care for marginalized populations. Considering the fact that Black and brown people — also known as marginalized populations — continue to be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, calling on a Black woman with expertise in that field makes much more sense than, say, appointing a neurosurgeon-turned futile Trump cabinet member who put himself in a position to contract Covid on the task force. (Ben Carson much?)
In particular, Nunez-Smith’s official Yale bio points to her history of having “established the Eastern Caribbean Health Outcomes Research Network (ECHORN), a research collaborative across four Eastern Caribbean islands, supporting several chronic disease research projects and enhancing health outcomes research and leadership capacity in the region,” showing she’s used to her work involving Black folks, in particular.
14. Michael Regan, EPA
Michael Regan was nominated as the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator on Dec. 17. At 44, he will be the first Black man to run the EPA. If confirmed, Regan will oversee policies relating to climate change, green energy and environmental racism, a topic that became a national conversation during the Flint water crisis. The North Carolina A&T University alumnus was working as the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. when Biden nominated him.
15. Susan Rice, White House Domestic Policy Council DirectorSource:Getty
Susan Rice will head the Domestic Policy Council, where she will ensure the carrying out of Joe Biden’s domestic policies, including immigration, racial justice and climate change. Prior to the announcement, Rice was reportedly being considered for Secretary of State, a position that requires the type of foreign policy leadership experience she displayed while working as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Adviser under Obama.
She was also under consideration to be Biden’s vice-presidential running mate before he chose Kamala Harris.
The position does not require a Senate confirmation, something that will avoid reigniting the controversy surrounding her comments describing South Carolina Sen. and Trump loyalist Lindsay Graham as a “piece of shit.” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called Rice “a human lightning rod” because of accusations that she intentionally released incorrect information about the Benghazi scandal in 2012. However, Congress ultimately cleared Rice of any wrongdoing.
16. Cedric RichmondSource:Getty
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond officially joined the Biden administration after it was announced he would serve as a senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which is not a cabinet position.
17. Cecilia Rouse, Council of Economic Advisors chairpersonSource:Getty
Cecelia Rouse was tapped to be the next chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers, an influential three-person panel defined by the White House as being “charged with offering the President objective economic advice on the formulation of both domestic and international economic policy.” If confirmed by the Senate, Rouse would be the first Black person to ever hold the position.
The position is far from inconsequential and will give the Princeton University labor economist a role in helping to turn around the country’s coronavirus pandemic-stricken economy, something that is at the top of Biden’s totem pole of priorities once he’s sworn into office in January.
Rouse, 56, is also in the unique position of having White House experience under her belt, as she served as a member of President Barack Obama‘s Council of Economic Advisers from 2009 to 2011 as well as the National Economic Council under President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 1999.
Aside from working in the upper echelon of government, Rouse also boasts a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University and is the dean and Lawrence and Shirley Katzman and Lewis and Anna Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education at Princeton University, where she is a professor of economics and public affairs, too.
18. Symone Sanders, Vice President’s spokesperson
Symone Sanders be Kamala Harris’ chief spokeswoman. Before coming on board as an adviser for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, Sanders was a political pundit whose national profile grew while serving as national press secretary for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Sanders was one of three Black women named to the Biden-Harris all female led communications team over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Sanders’ supporters playfully floated the idea that she could make an effective Secretary of Defense in March when a protester ran onstage during a speech Biden was giving in Los Angeles. After security pulled the protester away, a second protester rushed the stage, prompting Sanders to act quickly and drag her offstage.
The video footage went viral. Watch it here.
19. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, UN AmbassadorSource:Getty
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Liberia and as director-general of the Foreign Service, as well as assistant secretary for African affairs, was nominated to be Joe Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Liberia and as director-general of the Foreign Service, as well as assistant secretary for African affairs, was nominated to serve as the ambassador to the United Nations, making her the first and only Black candidate in his cabinet.
If true, she would be the first Black person named to Biden’s cabinet.
“I don’t feel targeted as an African American. I feel targeted as a professional,” Thomas-Greenfield said at the time.
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