White House establishes senior AAPI liaison following criticism over representation in Biden’s cabinet
None of the 15 cabinet secretaries confirmed in the president’s cabinet so far are Asian-American
On Tuesday, March 23, Senator Tammy Duckworth said she would oppose Biden’s nominees, expressing frustration with the lack of representation of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in high-level positions of the president’s administration.
Duckworth told reporters on Tuesday that she’s been talking to the Senate for months about the issue, to no avail.
“So I am not going to be voting for any nominees from the White House other than diversity nominees. I’ll be a ‘No’ on everyone until they figure this out,” she said.
The Senate recently confirmed Biden’s 15th Cabinet secretary, yet none of the 15 members are Asian-American.
Duckworth said that the last straw that led her to offer this ultimatum was a particularly tense phone call she had with Biden aides, including deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley.
According to a report by Politico, O’Malley praised Vice President Kamala Harris’ South Asian heritage when Duckworth raised concerns about the lack of representation in the Cabinet.
"When I asked about AAPI representation in the second part, the first words out of the staff's mouth is: 'We're very proud of Vice President Harris, which is incredibly insulting," Duckworth said.
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) March 23, 2021
"To be told that you have Kamala Harris, we are very proud of her, you don't need anybody else, is insulting," Duckworth told reporters. "That's not something you would say to the Black caucus — that you have Kamala — we're not going to be putting any African Americans in the Cabinet — why would you say that to AAPIs?"
Hours after Duckworth’s announcement, Sen. Mazie Hirono, the only other Asian-American in the chamber, joined in.
“This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. So I'm happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an LGBTQ person, an AAPI person. I'd just like to see more diversity representation,” Hirono told reporters.
Katherine Tai, the Chinese-American woman who was unanimously confirmed last week as the first Asian-American and woman of color to serve as U.S. trade representative, is technically holding a Cabinet-level position, but she is not one of the 15 federal department heads, which advocates would ideally like to see.
"I realize that we have Katherine Tai, but I don't think the trade representative is what the community understands as Cabinet level," Hirono told CNN.
Biden previously nominated Indian-American Neera Tanden, to be the head of Office of Management and Budget, but Sen. Joe Manchin and every other Republican in the Senate, rejected her appointment, evidently due to Tanden’s past “mean tweets” about senators.
This glaring lack of AAPI representation in Biden’s top Cabinet picks became more relevant in the aftermath of the mass shootings at three Asian-owned massage parlors in Georgia that set off a wave of fear among Asian Americans, and resulted in nation-wide rallies and vigils.
One of many vigils happening today in Georgia for the victims of the shooting at several spas. This one taking place near one of the spas in Atlanta. @11alive #11alive #StopAsianHate pic.twitter.com/Tqd2xhCohj
— Hope Ford (@hope_iam) March 18, 2021
Later in the day on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration would name a senior AAPI liaison “who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
“The President has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country,” Psaki added.
— APAICS (@APAICS) March 24, 2021
Ben Garmisa, spokesperson for Sen. Duckworth, said in a statement that the senator “appreciates the Biden administration’s assurances that it will do much more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government.”
News tonight: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) stands down on her threat to block Biden nominees over lack of AAPI representation among cabinet secretaries — after assurances from the administration.
A statement from her spokesman Ben Garmisa to me and @frankthorp pic.twitter.com/3dac2Y7lWd
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) March 24, 2021
Garmisa added that those pledges included “appointing an AAPI senior White House official to represent the community, secure the confirmation of AAPI appointments and advance policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community.”
Hirono also showed gratitude for the appointment of a senior-level White House liaison, saying that it will further strengthen the voice of the AAPI community.
“I had a productive conversation with the White House today to make clear my perspective about the importance of diversity in the President’s cabinet,” the Hawaiian senator wrote.
She stated that she will continue voting to confirm the “historic and highly-qualified” nominees that President Biden appoints to serve in his administration.