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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Qualifications or diversity?

Updated November 24, 2020 - 9:16 pm

After 30 years of evaluating presidential Cabinet appointments for diversity, I entered this latest round feeling a tad burned out.

The process is discouraging. Some Latino advocacy groups are demanding five spots on the 15-member Cabinet being assembled by President-elect Joe Biden. They’re dreaming. Given that Biden’s view of America seems to be what television was in the 1950s — “Black and white” — those who are neither Black nor white will be lucky to get three seats.

That’s the ceiling for Latinos. And the Latino seats are always cheap seats — like running the departments of Transportation, Energy, Interior or Housing and Urban Development. Those four spots form the “barrio” of the Cabinet table. The four top seats in the high-end neighborhood are for the attorney general and the heads of the Treasury, State and Defense departments. In Democratic administrations, those positions have been off-limits to Latinos.

Biden hit the mark with his first Latino appointment. He picked Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, to be secretary of Homeland Security. A former U.S. attorney who was director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Barack Obama, Mayorkas is first-rate. He also doesn’t appear to be the “drop the hammer” type who thinks Obama-type mass deportations solve everything.

This week, after his nomination was announced, Mayorkas tweeted: “When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

That’s a win. Still, I’d rather not count wins and calculate percentages. That’s math. I got into journalism to avoid math.

I was beginning to feel downright post-racial. But then I was reminded of something: Being blind to color shouldn’t mean being blind to reality.

And so, just as I was getting out of the diversity game, Ben Shapiro — and I say this, in my best Michael Corleone voice — pulled me back in. The 36-year-old conservative author, media commentator and radio host has a special calling, and it’s to remind us that smart people are capable of saying things that are not that smart.

This week — while discussing Biden’s emerging Cabinet, which an aide to the president-elect promised would “look like America” — Shapiro offered this gem to listeners of his radio show.

“I’m always confused by this idea that we have to proportionally represent every population in the United States in a Cabinet,” he said. “I’m not sure why that is supposed to make a difference. Other than you are a racist and you’re involved in racial essentialism. The suggestion being that your skin color, or your sex, is more important than your actual qualifications for the job.”

So anyone who values diversity is a racist? Shapiro sounds like a white male who was born on third base and then can’t figure out why others can’t get a hit. When he found himself at Harvard Law School, or hosting a national radio show, did he ever survey his peers and ask himself why so many of the people who had those opportunities looked like him?

I doubt it. When Shapiro lays out his argument so rigidly — either skin color and sex OR qualifications, but never both — what he is really saying is that the only “qualified” people on the planet are white males. And who decides who is qualified? Other white males.

I thought this question was settled years ago thanks to extraordinarily “qualified” women such as Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett.

They say Ginger Rogers had to do everything that Fred Astaire did — only backward and in high heels.

Well, in her Senate confirmation hearings, Barrett did everything that Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito did in theirs — only a lot more effortlessly and without notes.

As for African Americans, I think of outstanding individuals such as former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice or former President Barack Obama.

Anyone care to make the argument that Rice achieved what she did only because she is African American and a woman? Get a grip. Had she been born a white male, Rice would have still made it into the Oval Office. But she would have been sitting behind the Resolute desk.

It seems we still need to keep track of diversity in Cabinet appointments. It’s how we keep people honest — and grounded in the real world.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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