Analysis by Maeve Reston, CNN
Updated: Sat, 27 Feb 2021 20:38:01 GMT
President Joe Biden succeeded in nominating the most racially diverse slate of Cabinet nominees in history. But now the slow and contentious process of getting some of his top picks confirmed is leading progressive groups to question whether his nominees of color are facing a higher level of scrutiny than White male nominees of past administrations.
It's not yet possible to make hard data comparisons with past administrations, in part because the confirmation process is ongoing and in part because Biden's picks have been more diverse overall. But there is a growing sense of frustration about the obstacles that some of these nominees are facing.
The Senate confirmed two of Biden's top Black nominees -- Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US Ambassador to the United Nations -- along with Alejandro Mayorkas, who is the first Latino secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. But other nominees of color are still waiting -- and the pattern of pushback that some of them are facing as the process drags on is contributing to the perception that they are having a harder time than the White men of yesteryear.
"The principle here is -- is this fair play? Or is this just racial hazing?" said Marc Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. "Now, I'm not going to say it is, but I will say that all of the watchdogs are watching."
The difficulty in getting Biden's nominees confirmed is being magnified by the fact that the protests of the past year following the death of George Floyd in police custody put a spotlight on racism, racial inequities and the need for more diverse leadership at the top levels of government and business.
After two months in which Congress was distracted by a violent insurrection at the Capitol and the impeachment trial of a former President, it's hard to measure the extent to which race or gender is factoring into the delay in getting Biden's nominees confirmed, particularly when Congress is more polarized than any time in recent history.
But while GOP senators have raised legitimate ideological and policy concerns about some of the nominees whose confirmations are in question, the language that has been used to criticize them has, at times, made the critiques seem personal while playing on racial and gender stereotypes.
Nominees in the spotlight
Xavier Becerra, the son of a Mexican immigrant who became California's first Latino attorney general, is facing questions about his qualifications to lead the Department of Health and Human Services because he is not a physician -- even though the previous HHS secretary, under President Donald Trump, Alex Azar, also was not a doctor. An ad from the conservative group Heritage Action for America intones that Becerra "is not a doctor, but he helped a politically connected drug dealer get a commutation from Bill Clinton," a reference to a letter that Becerra wrote asking Clinton to evaluate the case of drug trafficker who was the son of a major Democratic donor in California.
Some Native American advocacy groups have been incensed by GOP descriptions of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who would become the first Native American Cabinet secretary if confirmed to lead the Interior Department, as a "radical," while some GOP senators have questioned her experience. Haaland was closely questioned during her confirmation hearing this week about some of her past statements while representing New Mexico, including that she was "wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands."
The Native American community quickly called attention to what it viewed as the inappropriate tone of her hearing, where she was berated and cut off by Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso during his questioning of her. Another GOP colleague, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, apologized after the hearing for calling Haaland a "whack job."
"I apologize. I was searching for a word for extremist, which I think is more neutral," Kennedy told Politico.
"Women, particularly women of color — we have struggled against this forever -- that we're held to a higher standard. We're asked to work harder, show our credentials more and it never seems to be quite enough," said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, noting the negative narrative pushed by critics about Haaland from the time that she was nominated.
During one eyebrow-raising exchange about Haaland's past criticism of fossil fuels, Barrasso questioned the nominee about her past statement that taxes on sales of legalized marijuana could ultimately replace some of the oil and gas royalties that help fund public schools: "We know what your stance is on replacing the revenue from the energy jobs," he said to her. "Your preference is to turn to drugs."
Pointing to terms used to describe Haaland like "radical" or "extremist," Echo Hawk added that "those become dog whistles for people of color."
"The only thing radical about Congresswoman Deb Haaland is that it took 244 years for a Native American to be on the cusp of leading an agency that -- that shoulders the responsibility for managing relationships with tribes," Echo Hawk said.
"The treatment of her: literally yelling at her, calling her a whack job, and likening her almost to a drug pusher," she said, referring to the exchange between Haaland and Barrasso, "it was just a level that was pretty disrespectful and I know a lot of people took issue. As women, we're exhausted by this, and as women of color, we see this consistently."
Two women of color whom Biden has nominated for top posts at the Justice Department are also facing intense scrutiny. Vanita Gupta, who is Indian American and Biden's nominee to be associate attorney general, is being targeted in an ad by the Judicial Crisis Network that calls her a "dangerous appointee" while showing images of bullet holes, looting and businesses on fire, as a narrator speaks about the riots that followed some of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has raised objections to Gupta and to the background of Kristen Clarke, who is Black and Biden's nominee for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. Lee has criticized the fact that Clarke invited an author who was viewed as anti-Semitic to speak at Harvard University while she was a student -- a decision she has described as a mistake. During an interview with Fox News this week, Lee called past comments by both women "absolutely crazy."
Meanwhile, the nomination of Neera Tanden, who would become the first South Asian American head of the Office of Management and Budget, is in limbo following criticism of her combative tweets, despite the fact that the nation just witnessed four years under a commander in chief who tortured his critics with his biting tweets. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, announced last week that he will not support Tanden, all but sinking her nomination unless a Republican votes for her in the evenly divided Senate. Tanden will meet Monday with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is "still in the process of vetting the nominee," an aide said Friday.
'It just smacks of a different standard'
Advocates say these nominees are facing heightened scrutiny.
"The nominees of color who have a track record of being advocates for the community -- Xavier Becerra, Vanita Gupta, Kristen Clarke, and you can include Neera Tanden in that group -- seem to be being subjected to extraordinary analysis, scrutiny and treatment," Morial said.
"I'm not ready to jump to a conclusion, but it's fair to say that there is a conversation in the community and now people are watching, and they're especially watching the Democratic caucus, because Black voters delivered the majority," Morial said, referring to Democratic control of the US Senate.
Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, said she was troubled by what she views as coded language questioning whether nominees like Becerra or Haaland have the right experience, when she views their credentials as impeccable.
"We're just seeing a lot of effort here to target certain nominees who happen to be women, people of color or the daughters or sons of immigrants -- and it just smacks of a different standard and makes you question whether there is something deeper going on here," Murguía said.
The tone and tenor of the debate over the nominees, particularly the way women of color have been under the microscope, also caught the attention of Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studied the racial and ethnic breakdown of appointees in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations in the leadup to Biden's inauguration.
"There's been more scrutiny on the part of the Senate to go very far back in their pasts to find what they believe to be unscrupulous or inappropriate behavior," Turner Lee said, citing Clarke's actions as a college student as an example. She questioned whether the nominees are being scrutinized more closely because they aligned with the progressive values that Biden has set for their respective roles -- whether it is placing equity at the center of conversations about policy or making sure that civil rights take precedence when examining justice issues.
"The real concern with some of the digging into people's personal lives, prior to when they had formative opinions about issues, has a lot to do with whether or not the Senate is fully willing to embrace (the agenda) Biden has put forth," Turner Lee said. "There may be some unconscious pushback to where the country is headed, and that's very unfortunate."
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said there will have to be a great deal more analysis before anyone can draw empirical conclusions about whether Biden's nominees of color are facing a harsher level of scrutiny than their White peers in past years.
That analysis, she said, will need to test alternative hypotheses, examining other factors like the hyper-polarization of Congress, the level of controversy that each nominee brought to the process and how progressive each nominee was.
"We know that women and people of color do get treated differently -- and so a Senate hearing is no different than any other type of workplace interaction where we have to think about microaggressions and other kinds of things," Gillespie said. "We need to do the studies in order to quantify this and know for sure."
But, she said, "It's a fair question to ask."