We live in a world of double standards, and it’s especially blatant in the hearings for nominees for cabinet and other positions in the Biden administration. If you are white and male, you can expect smooth sailing; if you are white and female, you may experience a few bumps, but you will be okay. But there seems to be an open bias against women of color and other people of color among many of the Republican members of the US Senate leadership—and even some of the Democrats who are charged with making decisions as to who will lead agencies in the Biden administration.
The experience of Neera Tanden, who was forced to withdraw her nomination as the first woman of color to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), provides one of a number of examples of the hypocrisy of our leaders in not accepting in others what they themselves often dish out. Tanden’s background would seem ideal for OMB. She served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. She’s president of the Center for American Progress, a national security and economic policy think tank. The child of immigrants from India, she was raised in a single-parent home by a mother who relied on government assistance programs. She attended UCLA and Yale Law School.
But it wasn’t her background or her work that were scrutinized by the Senate—it was her tweets, often unkind, about members of the government. In recent years, she tweeted “vampires have more heart” than Ted Cruz (R-TX) and compared Mitch McConnell (R-AZ) to Voldemort, calling him “Moscow Mitch.” She called Susan Collins (R-ME) “criminally ignorant” and suggested that Bernie Sanders (I-VT) got help from Russia in the 2016 election.
Tanden’s tweets are strong, direct, and in some cases bruising. They are the tweets of a confident woman, one who has apologized for them and made clear in her hearings that they would not impact her ability to work with both sides of the aisle. But in this state of hypocrisy, the tweets of a woman of color are unforgivable, unlike those of nominees from the Trump administration, or from Trump himself.
Consider Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, for example. He went back and deleted a number of embarrassing tweets from years before, including ones that mocked Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista. He was not only confirmed, but Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who cited Tanden’s tweets as a reason he could not vote for her, voted for Grenell.
Tanden’s withdrawal can be seen as a symbol of how women, especially women of color, are treated by those who hold power. According to nonprofit leaders, Tanden’s treatment seems to be part of a broader pattern in the confirmation of Biden’s nominees of color. Their nomination processes have been meaner, rougher, and more difficult than in previous years when compared with white counterparts. Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia and an expert in gender and politics, told the Huffington Post, “If you’ve got a handful of nominees who are either women or people of color systematically experiencing more hurdles and doubt than white men going through the confirmation process, that raises a flag.”
When Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) was nominated for Secretary of the Interior, she was cast as a radical by Republicans. Many groups viewed this language as racially coded. Certainly, her positions on the environment, climate change, Native American rights, and the upkeep of our forests and lands may fall to the left of some, but “radical” places them in another category altogether. Former Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Mark Udall (D-CO) wrote in USA Today that “the exceptional criticism of Rep. Haaland and the threatened holds on her nomination must be motivated by something other than her record.” (Haaland was confirmed on Monday, March 17, 2021, with a slim margin of 51–40.)
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While women are bearing the brunt of this kind of abuse and critique, it is not limited to them. Some men of color have also faced anger and attacks on their qualifications that seem to be covering up animus and racial bias that might otherwise go unspoken. Xavier Becerra is Latino and also a child of immigrants. He’s Biden’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Becerra is under fire because of his allegedly “controversial” views on immigration and the notion that the fact that he is not a doctor makes him less than qualified. It should be noted that neither Alex Azar, HHS secretary for most of Donald Trump’s administration, nor Kathleen Sebelius, who led the department for five years under Barack Obama, were doctors. Nevertheless, Becerra’s lack of a medical degree has become a huge sticking point for a number of Republicans, including Ted Cruz.
Becerra is currently California attorney general and will be the first Latinx HHS secretary. (Becerra narrowly won confirmation today, with a party-line 50–49 split in the Senate.) Perhaps the memory of his defense of the Affordable Care Act in court does not sit well with many Republican senators.
But Becerra is not alone. Only six Republicans voted with Democrats to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security, after a contentious confirmation process.
Racial bias seems to trump qualifications when it comes to filling these positions. Janet Murguía, the president of UnidosUS, told the Washington Post, “We are concerned with what seems like foot-dragging and an effort to slow down the confirmation process of eminently qualified individuals and the fact that these nominees are women, people of color, sons or daughters of immigrants. There seems to be a pattern that is very troubling. It seems like this treatment is a double standard because we’re seeing that historically other administrations have been able to move much more quickly.”
Biden’s white nominees, particularly those who are male, have not had this same experience. Janet Yellen (Treasury), Denis McDonough (Veterans Affairs), Pete Buttigieg (Transportation), Antony Blinken (State), and Avril Haines (National Intelligence) all faced relatively conflict-free confirmations. Lloyd Austin, who is Black, was also easily confirmed by a 93–2 Senate vote for Secretary of Defense, reflecting a bipartisan tradition of confirming a president’s defense pick as rapidly as possible.
Merrick Garland, nominated for attorney general, had a cordial hearing but was asked to defend the nominations of Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, two women of color who are nominated for associate attorney general and for deputy attorney general for civil rights, respectively. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) referenced “antisemitic comments” in association with Clarke in his questioning and pointed to Gupta’s critiques of Republicans. Garland responded calmly, “I’m a pretty good judge of what an antisemite is, and I do not believe that she is an antisemite, and I do not believe she is discriminatory in any sense.” If these are the questions asked of Garland, one is not surprised to see the harsher criticism directed toward Gupta and Clarke. (It’s worth noting that a number of GOP officials have taken a stand in support of Gupta.)
As we slowly and painfully move toward creating an administration that would be historically the most diverse, we are also peeling back layers of sexism and racism. Our elected legislators, chosen to make our laws and uphold our democracy, are now showing us their bias against people of color, against women, and especially against women of color. This is sexism and racism, and we should not tolerate either.