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What's The Difference Between Nominal And Substantive Diversity In Office?


President-elect Joe Biden promised to name the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history, and two selections this week put names to that promise. His choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he plans to nominate retired General Lloyd Austin to run the Defense Department. Austin would be the first African American to run the Pentagon.

Behind the scenes, civil rights groups have been lobbying the transition team, and today, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris met with leaders of some of those groups. Before that meeting took place, I spoke with professor Ravi Perry about this quest for political influence. He chairs the political science department at Howard University. Good to have you here.

RAVI PERRY: Great to be with you, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Although Biden has only just begun to name high-level appointees, so far, how would you judge his performance on this promise to assemble the most diverse Cabinet in history?

PERRY: Well, I think that we should begin with the promise, and that in and of itself is a sea change from, of course, what we have seen in the mostly white administration not only in terms of Cabinet secretaries but in terms of all kinds of appointments, particularly judicial appointments, of the Trump administration. So I say because they began with the promise of more diversity, that is a good thing for the United States of America. Everyone should be excited for that.

SHAPIRO: All right. So we begin by recognizing the effort. You're saying intentions go a long way. What about the follow-through so far?

PERRY: I am satisfied with what I'm seeing so far in that the major appointments to date have been people of color - a woman of color from Massachusetts, doctor, head of the CDC; a Latino man, current AG of California, head of Health and Human Services; and of course, a new appointment - expected appointment - of an African American to lead the Pentagon. These are top-level positions that have not had people of color in these roles ever before. And that's a great down payment.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the groups that are vying for influence behind the scenes. We've seen this shift over the last few decades in who is on the front lines of fighting for civil rights. And last week, there were reports that some of the older organizations, like the NAACP and the Urban League, felt like they were being left out of the conversation in favor of newer groups like Color of Change. Professor Perry, what do you see is the impact of this generational tension?

PERRY: Well, I think it's important to understand, as a former president of a NAACP chapter - I was the first openly gay person of African American descent in that role in the country - you know, the reality is, civil rights is far broader than any one organization no matter how old they may be because it requires both generations to be able to engage in this sincere diversity that the Biden and Harris administration say that they want the Cabinet to reflect.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're telling the NAACP to chill out (laughter).

PERRY: I think that they need to - I think - I do think they need to be consulted. And I do think they have some great candidates, I'm sure, in mind. But let's remember that, you know, the president and vice president - they're going to be appointing hundreds and hundreds and thousands of positions. And so, you know, if we're just focused on the symbolism of the scripted representation at the Cabinet level, then we might lose the fact that what we really need in these civil rights groups - we need the substantive representation.

SHAPIRO: This week, there was a virtual meeting between members of the Biden transition team and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. They are pushing the Biden-Harris administration to choose Asian Americans for at least 7% of Cabinet-level and other positions, reflecting their proportion of the U.S. population. It sounds like you think that sort of 7% quota might be the wrong way to approach this.

PERRY: What we want is not descriptive representation solely. What we need is substantive representation. And so, you know, what we have is a - is, I think, a tension between these groups who want to see more people who look like them in the seat of power. But what they really want - at least what I hope that they really want - is more people who will fight for the interests that matter for those groups that they care about. And those people may be people of color that look like them, but they may not.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, do you think these pressure campaigns work? I mean, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pressed Biden to appoint more Latino nominees in the days leading up to his choosing Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services. Do you think there's a cause and effect there?

PERRY: I do think that the campaigns by all of these groups to try to pressure the administration does work. But we also need to understand that this is a intergenerational fight, and it's a fight that's less about who looks like us and more about who is there to fight for us.

SHAPIRO: That's Ravi Perry, chair of Howard University's political science department. Thank you for speaking with us.

PERRY: Great to be with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.