WASHINGTON — The heads of legacy civil rights groups say they are struggling to participate in President-elect Joe Biden’s transition, vying to be included as the incoming administration tries to make good on a promise to Black voters to be the most diverse in history.
Prominent civil rights advocates say they haven't been consulted about key cabinet picks and are frustrated they haven't met with Biden since the election.
“We aren’t asking for some kind of veto, we are asking for some kind of consultation,” said Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League. “We are still in a wait-and-see mode, but we think that the civil rights community should be more closely engaged.”
Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate, and she will become the nation's first Black vice president, in addition to being the first woman and Asian American to hold the job.
So far, Biden has made three choices for cabinet secretaries, including Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who is Hispanic and his pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, who will be the first woman to hold the job. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, will serve as Biden's ambassador to the United Nations, a position that is often included in the Cabinet under Democratic presidents.
On Tuesday, Biden rolled out his economic team, which includes one Black man, one Black woman and one Indian-American woman. The new White House communication team is entirely female and more than half are non-white. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Black man, will hold a senior advisor role in the White House.
But the leaders of some civil rights group remain concerned they're not being consulted.
“We haven’t had a meeting with him, we have not had a conversation about the Georgia run-off election, we have not had direct conversations about key appointments that are going,” said Derrick Johnson, head of the NAACP. “Civil rights leaders in this country should be on par if not more than other constituency groups he has met with."
Johnson said his group is opposed to two names that have been floated as possible Biden cabinet picks — former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to return to the job, and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take any role. Instead, his group is pushing for Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, to be the agriculture secretary.
The tension underscores what is likely to be an ongoing challenge for Biden: After building a coalition to win an election, the various representatives of the identity-based groups that helped propel him will want a say in how he governs, and he will have to balance the many demands.
Black voters were decisive in Biden’s victory, with record Black turnout in swing states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin giving him an edge over Trump. During the campaign, Biden said diversity in his administration would mirror America's.
“I think they have got to understand how important and significant the expectations are with respect to African American participation in all aspects of the government — all aspects,” said Morial. “This isn’t 2008, this isn’t 1992, this isn’t 1976, this is a different time. A very, very different time. I am withholding judgment for now, but I am offering these comments.”
Biden relieved some of the concern over the level of Black participation in his administration with several appointments to his economic and communications team in recent days, picking Adewale Adeyemo as deputy treasury secretary and Cecilia Rouse as head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Three Black women, Ashley Etienne, Karine Jean-Pierre, and Symone Sanders, will serve in prominent West Wing communications roles.
“I'm beginning to feel like he may be serious about that,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, referring to Biden’s campaign promises for a diverse administration, on Monday on MSNBC. “We’re going to hold him accountable, but looking good so far in the initial appointments.”
But given the role Black voters played in the election, the civil rights advocates believe they should have more of a seat at the table as decisions are being made. Nearly half of Biden’s transition team is made up of people of color, but Morial said he is concerned that the teams don’t include anyone from the legacy civil rights groups while other advocacy groups like labor unions, environmental groups, and think tanks have representation.
Instead, civil rights leaders say they have been reaching out on their own to the transition to try to make their input heard. Johnson said he raised his concerns about several names being discussed for cabinet posts, and Morial said he has arranged meetings with the transition team for the Department of Labor and the coronavirus advisory board.
Biden has already announced he will fill 11 senior roles with Black officials and a transition official noted the transition has been engaging with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (which is separate from the NAACP) and the National Urban League.
“Our team is engaging leaders and organizations to ensure they have a seat at the table in helping to develop and implement the President-elect's vision, and we will continue over the coming weeks as we work to shape the Biden-Harris administration,” said transition spokesperson Jamal Brown.
While once the titans of the civil rights movement, groups like the NAACP and Urban League are now two pieces in a larger network of groups representing Black voices. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has also launched new groups pushing for equality.
Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change, which was founded in 2005, says her organization is having almost daily calls with various members of the Biden team about issues like racial justice and policy at major agencies like the Department of Treasury. She said the group is pushing to make sure Biden’s nominees are not only diverse, but also support progressive policies and have a racial justice point of view to their work.
“We aren’t in the pessimistic phase yet, we are in the anything can happen phase,” Hatch said. She emphasized the need for Black officials to play a heavy role in the administration saying, “Black voters won the election for Biden and deserve to be heavily represented in his administration.”