THE BLOG
05/06/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Criticisms of Obama Cabinet's Lack of Diversity are Rooted in Inaccurate Identity Politics

Getty Images

President Obama is nearly finished picking his second cabinet, and it will be whiter and more male-dominated than his first. Despite what the National Organization of Women and other diversity-oriented lobbying groups say, there is nothing wrong with this. The president's cabinet should be judged for their ideology, experience, and character, not because of what boxes they check off on their census form. Though the criticism of the Obama cabinet's demographic makeup is being done primarily by liberals and feminist organizations, the critique is antithetical to a major goal of sensible feminism - -that women applying for jobs should be judged on their qualifications and ability rather than their gender. While it is begnin prejudice to suggest that President Obama should choose cabinet officials because of their racial or gender identity, it is prejudiced nonetheless and ultimately does nothing but undermine the status of women and ethnic minorities who serve in public office.

It was only a few decades ago that women and minorities in politics were viewed only in terms of their demographics, either as PR props to increase a political party's popularity with a particular subgroup or as fringe candidates who preached a radical message appealed only to their own demographic. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, he was the African-American equivalent of Strom Thurmond or George Wallace, a fringe candidate who was beloved by a small section of the electorate because of his aggressive racial views. Jackson's platform was an aggressive racial message only a few steps removed from Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. He kissed Yasser Arafat, praised Fidel Castro, referred to New York City as "Hymietown" and once told reporters that he was "sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust." Though Jackson did try to move towards a broader constituency in his 1988 campaign, he was never more than a fringe candidate defined by his race and racial message.

New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first women to be on a national presidential ticket, was not a radical like Jackson, but her political career was likewise completely dominated by her identity. As a fourth-term Congresswoman, she had few legislative accomplishments, and unlike recent vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, was not considered a major policy leader within her caucus. Though Ferraro was a protégé of Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and served on the prestigious House Budget Committee, these were not typical qualifications for a vice presidential candidate. Instead, Ferraro was chosen because lobbying groups like the National Organization for Women were effective at lobbying the Democrats for a woman VP, and because Democratic strategists believed it would be a way to win back women voters who had supported the Reagan/Bush ticket in 1980.

When organizations like the National Organization for Women criticize the Obama cabinet for its lack of diversity, they want to turn the clock back to the era when Geraldine Ferraro was chosen as a vice presidential nominee because of her chromosomes rather than her qualifications. Implicit within NOW's idea that a "proper" cabinet would be 50 percent female, is the idea that only women can really represent women's interests in government. This reduces potential cabinet secretaries to their gender identity. This was unfair to do in 1984, but given the changes in American politics since then, it is absurd to do in 2013.

Though the 1984 presidential election took place less than three decades ago, the involvement of women and minorities in politics has significantly improved in such a short time. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are far different from Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro. Though both obviously have a racial and gender identity, which is a part of their political message, this identity is secondary to their ideology and job performance. Indeed, there are really no examples of situations where Hillary Clinton's gender caused her to behave differently than a male Secretary of State with similar ideology would have.

In contemporary political climate, demographics have very little to do with policy preferences. John Kerry will do some things differently as Secretary of State than Clinton did, but these differences will be because ideology and personality, not because Kerry is a man and Clinton is a woman. For Secretary of Defense, Michelle Flournoy was considered though Chuck Hagel was chosen, but on the major gender-related issues facing the Defense Department -- integrating women into combat units, how to effectively prosecute soldiers who rape other soldiers, and making sure women soldiers have quality healthcare -- they held basically identical positions.

President Obama likely chose nominees from his cabinet short list based on ideological agreement and personal comfort. He picked those who he could work effectively with and who would do the best job out of all the potential nominees that he could get confirmed by the Senate. Though this could be because Obama is secretly a misogynist, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support this theory. If Hillary Clinton is elected president in 2016, and selects women cabinet officials over men who wanted the job, Male Rights Activist groups will issue press releases saying President Clinton is making these choices because she is a woman and cannot effectively judge the quality of potential cabinet secretaries. The National Organization for Women would doubtlessly attack these groups, and they would be right to do so. It's a shame they cannot see how their own attack on the Obama cabinet has very few differences from this hypothetical attack on a Clinton cabinet.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.