Biden’s early picks prompt concern from Black groups about too few Black senior officials

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, said Tuesday that he was baffled that Biden has failed to confirm a meeting with the civil rights groups nearly a month after Election Day.

“We have not had any communication with the president-elect, so we have no concept of what to expect next,” Johnson said, noting that Biden has been a longtime member of the organization and that the NAACP pushed hard for his election. “That’s somewhat concerning to us.”

“But for the Black community support for him, he would not be in office,” he said.

Prominent advocates, and members of Congress who typically keep a lower profile, also expressed disappointment in the fledgling Biden administration — in some cases saying they hoped that sounding the alarm would influence Biden’s thinking as he fills out his government.

“I really thought — at this stage of the game — I would see more African American appointments in the top positions,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who endorsed Biden in the Democratic primary. “And I would have had more of a sense of confidence that there would be more African American men and women appointed to positions at the highest level of government.”

“We are capable of being in those lead positions,” Watson Coleman added. “I don’t see that yet. And that’s disappointing to me.”

Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a Black trade union group, said Biden had “fallen a bit more than just short” of expectations with regard to appointing Black officials — particularly in naming Black women to “meaningful positions inside of this administration.”

Biden’s transition team confirmed it had received a request for a meeting from the seven groups. Biden officials said they have “engaged” with some of the groups individually, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Urban League. They did not confirm that the requested meeting would take place.

Biden has nominated longtime diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black former Foreign Service officer, to be ambassador to the United Nations. And on Tuesday, he introduced six key members of his economics team, a group that includes Wally Adeyemo, who would be the first African American deputy treasury secretary, and Cecilia Rouse, who would be the first Black official to serve as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. The group also included Neera Tanden, who would be the first woman of color — her parents were from India — to lead the Office of Management and Budget. All require Senate confirmation.

But those raising concerns cited Biden choosing White officials for top jobs at the state and treasury departments as well as White House positions including chief of staff, national security adviser and press secretary. Instead, they said, Biden has so far largely put Black officials in lower-profile positions or in jobs that include “deputy” in the title.

Their focus now is on positions including defense secretary and attorney general. They argue that Biden’s decisions about those two key roles could affect the two runoff Senate races in Georgia — which will determine which party controls the upper chamber. Democrats need a strong turnout by Black voters to win those races.

“In order to win Georgia you have to have a very energized African American voting base,” Johnson said. “At the very minimum you shouldn’t do anything to dampen the energy and enthusiasm of that base. Who he appoints to what position could very well do that.”

Biden officials noted that so far half of the Cabinet-level positions feature people of color and that 10 Black officials have been named to key jobs. Biden has broken four racial barriers with his nominations, including naming Alejandro Mayorkas to be the first Hispanic to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris will be the first woman, first Black woman and first Asian American woman to fill the job. Biden has pledged to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court should an opening arise.

“His success in finding diverse voices to develop and implement his policy vision to tackle our nation’s toughest challenges will be clear when our full slate of appointees and nominees is complete,” said Cameron French, a spokesman for the Biden transition.

Other groups besides the seven requesting a meeting have also weighed in: In Late November, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus wrote to Biden urging him to make sure his appointments would reflect their population in the United States.

Janet Murguía, president of the Latino organization UnidosUS, said there was an initial burst of excitement about Mayorkas’s selection for the Homeland Security post.

“We think that’s a great start, but there’s much more to do in terms of seeing more representation at the highest levels,” Murguía said. “There’s still many roles to be filled. We’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. But there are some key roles we believe could be filled by key high-profile Hispanics.”

Biden’s team noted that he has so far named fewer than a quarter of the federal positions he plans to highlight. For example, Susan E. Rice, who is African American and was on Biden’s shortlist for secretary of state and vice president, will get a “key job” in the Biden administration, according to a person in direct contact with the president-elect.

Still, the civil rights leaders say they are focused on top positions.

“Those of us that have had access to administrations know the difference between first tier and second tier,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is among those hoping to meet with Biden.

Sharpton noted that President Barack Obama had two Black attorneys general during his eight years in the White House. “The expectation among the civil rights community and the Black community here is not unfounded,” Sharpton said.

He and others have promoted Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Clinton administration, as well as Tony West, a former associate attorney general during the Obama administration. They also have signaled that Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who was defeated in November, would be palatable. Jones is White but has a strong civil rights background, most notably when as a U.S. attorney he prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church in which four young Black girls were killed.

“We had a reckoning of race with George Floyd,” Sharpton said. “To answer that without an attorney general who not only has a sensitivity but a background in protecting people with police reform and voting rights would be something that would be very displeasing if not insulting to the community he promised to represent on the night he was elected.”

“It was Joe Biden who said the African American community has his back and he’ll have ours,” he added. “We would assume, but we’ll see, in the appointments.”

Regarding the Defense slot, Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration who is White, has long been regarded as a leading candidate to become the first female defense secretary.

But over the past few weeks, two Black candidates have been floated: Jeh Johnson, a secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration, and Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general.

The NAACP’s Johnson said it’s a “problem” that he and other civil rights leaders have not yet heard from Biden about setting a time for a meeting. In addition to the NAACP, the group includes representatives from the Urban League and Sharpton’s National Action Network, among others.

“It’s very important that this meeting with the historic civil rights leaders takes place,” said Marc H. Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League. “We want to have the conversation and we want to establish the relationship — and a relationship is one where there will be times we will be supportive, and there may be times we have to object.

“There’s high expectations about the diversity of the Cabinet,” Morial said. “And we think the expectation is, when it comes to the Cabinet [of] this incoming administration, it will exceed the high-water marks of Clinton and Obama.”

It was a reference to support from Black voters during the general election. Black voters backed Biden by wide margins in several key states that had gone for President Trump in 2016. In Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which secured his electoral college advantage, about 9 in 10 Black voters sided with Biden, exit polls showed.

During the Democratic primary, Biden’s candidacy was revived in South Carolina after he was endorsed by the powerful Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). Clyburn, however, is also among those concerned about Biden’s appointments. “I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces,” Clyburn told Juan Williams, a columnist for The Hill newspaper. “But so far it’s not good.”

He and others have been pushing Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, for a possible nomination as agriculture secretary. Biden has indicated he is reluctant to select House or Senate members for jobs because it could dilute the party’s power on Capitol Hill.

“It is critically important that Black women’s leadership be well represented in your Cabinet and throughout the Administration,” according to a letter signed by two dozen officials who lead groups promoting Black women.

The letter was organized by Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, who said in addition to Agriculture she is pushing for a Black woman to run at least one other major department, such as Housing and Urban Development; Education; Health and Human Services; or Justice.

“We are appreciative of the staff positions,” Campbell said. “But where are the Black women in the statutory Cabinet positions?”

Vanessa Williams, Dan Lamothe and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.

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