Commentary: Three Tips to Diversify the White House

Here are a few principles President Obama should live by when picking his next Cabinet appointments.

Posted: 01/11/2013 12:44 PM EST
Commentary: Three Tips to Diversify the White House

After weeks of breathlessly hyping the country's impending doom from the fiscal cliff, the national media this week turned its collective attention to the new crisis of diversity in the president's cabinet.

The latest crisis started after President Obama nominated three white men — John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew — to lead three of his top cabinet departments, thus opening up a conversation about diversity in the president's cabinet.

I welcome this conversation. I've been working on these issues since I helped lead the movement for faculty diversity at Harvard Law School more than 20 years ago when a young fellow law student named Barack Obama spoke at one of our campus rallies. Now as a diversity consultant, I lecture about this issue at colleges and businesses throughout the country.

But this time, I hope this discussion receives more than the media's usual short-lived episodic coverage before reporters turn their attention next week to gun control, the inauguration, the State of the Union, the debt ceiling, and a hundred other issues that will inevitably compete for their time. But considering the nation's newsrooms still trail in diversity themselves, serious journalists may not be able to address this issue without asking some important questions about their own institutions.

From my experience, I would offer three guiding principles that could help the White House or any organization seeking to achieve greater diversity.

1.  Diversity is an asset, not a liability. Diversity is not something you do to appease interest groups after you've made your most important hiring decisions. Diversity of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives actually enhances the workplace by providing fresh new ideas often absent in more homogeneous work settings.

2.  Diversity starts from the top. It has to be a priority throughout the organization, from the top down and the bottom up. It can't just be someone else's responsibility, such as a diversity officer. It has to be a part of the organizational culture, in every department at every level.

3.  You have to go out of your comfort zone to achieve diversity. You can't just pick the people you already know. You have to make an active effort to seek and recruit new people at new places you may not have considered. And you have to identify, develop and nurture new talent from the ground up to build the pipeline for the future.

So how does the White House measure on these three guidelines?

The president gets high marks on the first. He clearly believes diversity is a valuable asset. He appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Eric Holder as attorney general, and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also appointed Steven Chu as energy secretary, Hilda Solis as labor secretary, Kathleen Sebelius as HHS secretary and Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary.

The administration also does well on the second guideline, but it still seems to need some improvement. President Obama understands that diversity starts from the top, but it does not appear to be as easily achievable in the organizational culture in every department at every level, especially gender diversity in the departments of justice, defense, veterans affairs and energy, where male appointees reportedly outnumbered female appointees by about two to one.

Finally, the president did go beyond his comfort zone in making his first term appointments. But the key second term appointments, so far, seem more insular. Still, the president has set up an impressive pipeline for the future. He's selected people like United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who probably would have become secretary of state but for Republican opposition, and he appointed Lisa Jackson, the first Black woman to serve as EPA administrator. Most recently, the president even nominated William Thomas, the first Black gay man tapped for the federal bench. They will all become part of the pipeline for future federal appointments.

But the media's primary focus is on the top cabinet posts, and here I have to admit, I'm not as excited about John Kerry as secretary of state as I would have been about Susan Rice. In a country where white men make up just 38 percent of the population, it seems they still enjoy vastly more opportunities than women and minorities. That's also true in Congress where Republicans recently announced a slate of all white men to serve as committee chairs.

The White House says it's not done yet with its second term appointments, and the truth is they have a long way to go. But so does the rest of the government, the media and the private sector. President Obama certainly needs to do his share to achieve greater diversity, but all the rest of us need to do our own work as well.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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