After four long years of Donald Trump’s assorted bigotries, which culminated in a Confederate flag-waving assault on the Capitol, Joe Biden promises to reverse course, starting with a rainbow Cabinet that “looks like America.”
But in the language of politicians, “diversity” is just a euphemism for a multitude of special oppressions based on gender, race, national background, sexuality, etc. Biden is happy to include select members of these groups at the top of his team. But how much does that mean for actually tackling social justice and equality?
“First-ever” choices don’t mean good choices. Biden’s picks for Cabinet-level positions are hyped as new and fresh, but many of them are retreads from the Obama-Biden administration.
For the powerful position of Secretary of the Treasury, Biden has nominated the first woman, Janet Yellen, who was the Federal Reserve chair under Obama. Yellen is what some people call a “buckraker,” a former official or other prominent member of the elite who brings in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars giving speeches to large corporations and their lobbyists. This creates obvious conflicts of interest for those who rotate back into government. Yellen has received millions in speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Google.
Yellen will be in charge of saving an economy that has left unprecedented numbers of jobless people waiting in food lines. But her priority will be to protect the fortunes of the rich using the usual capitalist tools, from offering outright handouts to tinkering with interest rates at home and confronting economic competitors abroad.
If Biden’s choice for Secretary of Defense is confirmed, recently retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III will become the first African American to hold that position. During the Obama-Biden administration, Austin was the commanding general in charge of the devastating war against Iraq. He is currently on the board of directors of Raytheon Corporation, a major U.S. weapons manufacturer.
Austin’s appointment would also be a rebuke to the formal notion of civilian control of the military, requiring an official waiver to the law requiring that a new Pentagon chief must have been out of uniform for a minimum of seven years.
For Director of National Intelligence, Biden is proposing former Obama deputy CIA chief Avril Haines, who would become the first woman at that post. She was key both to the drone program that summarily rained death from the skies of the Middle East and to the cover-up of U.S. use of torture, including waterboarding and sexual violence.
Demographics don’t determine policy. Changing the skin color, gender, or other personal characteristics of the people in power doesn’t change how that power is used. The record is clear.
Ben Carson, Trump’s Black Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, did nothing to eliminate homelessness or dilapidated public tenements. Richard Grenell was the first openly gay Cabinet member, but his tenure as Director of National Intelligence did nothing to rein in Trump’s homophobic supporters.
Being a woman did not prevent Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, from selling billions of dollars in weapons to the Saudi Arabian regime, hardly a tribune of women’s or other human rights. Colin Powell, appointed by Bush Jr. as the first African American Secretary of State, lied to the world about Iraq’s invisible weapons of mass destruction, fueling the U.S. invasion.
And let’s remember Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, and the first woman to hold that position. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she famously defended sanctions against Iraq, which some estimates say killed hundreds of thousands of children. “This is a very hard choice,” she said, “but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
The administration of the first Black president, Barack Obama, and his vice president, Joe Biden, deported poor and desperate workers back to Central America and used military might to threaten economic competitors and political enemies abroad. It maintained the power of U.S. imperialism with a strong police presence at home and hundreds of bases worldwide. And, in response to the 2008 economic collapse, it bailed out corporations and the rich with trillions of dollars while workers and poor people continued to suffer.
Moreover, by leaving oppressed and exploited working people behind, the Obama-Biden administration fueled the anger and discontent that led to Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
Fight for the needs of working people in all their variety. Biden’s Cabinet selections, including his historic choice of Kamala Harris as the first Black, Asian American, and female vice president, are a sop to identity politics. This approach tends to divide people engaged in social struggle based on their specific forms of oppression rather than uniting them. But it serves politicians well by allowing them to claim virtuousness based on representation that has nothing to do with people’s stands on issues.
In the campaign for a better world, fighting against the marginalization and special hardships of oppressed groups is crucial. But by itself, identity politics can only reproduce the same capitalist rungs on the ladder, only with more diversity at the top. A working-class perspective is essential.
Taking class into account is about addressing the deepest of society’s ills once and for all without leaving anyone’s struggle out. What are some of the demands to be raised in pursuit of this? An immediate program to provide full employment, including reducing the standard workweek while not cutting pay, in order to spread the jobs around. Full citizenship rights for undocumented workers and families. Massive investments to improve housing, schools, health facilities, and environmental safety in communities of color. Free reproductive care on demand and equal pay for comparable work. Protections against discrimination targeted at LGBTQ+ people.
Biden’s Cabinet appointees may be demographically wide-ranging, relatively speaking, but they are not diverse when it comes to defending capitalism, the root cause of divisiveness and discrimination. It’s in the interest of all working people to see Biden’s diversity ploy for what it is — a fresh veneer on the same dead-end politics of both parties of the ruling class.
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