On the day she was introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as his nominee to be the United States trade representative, Katherine Tai recalled the time she and a colleague from the Trade Representative's Office of General Counsel were in Geneva presenting a case to sue China before the World Trade Organization.
“We sat down at the table,” Tai said in remarks at the Biden-Harris transition event Friday in Wilmington, Delaware. “She, whose parents had emigrated from South India, and I, whose parents had come from Taiwan.”
Tai described how her “heart swelled with pride” as they stated they were there to represent the United States of America.
“Two daughters of immigrants,” she said. “There to serve, to fight for, and to reflect the nation that had opened doors of hope and opportunity to our families.”
Tai paid tribute to her parents, born in mainland China and raised in Taiwan, who came to the U.S. as graduate students. Her father became a researcher at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and her mother still works at the National Institutes of Health, developing treatments for opioid addiction.
Minutes after Tai spoke, former Ambassador Susan Rice, whom Biden nominated as the director of the Domestic Policy Council declared, “I'm a descendant of immigrants, and the enslaved. And service is in our blood.”
Rice told the story of her paternal great-grandfather, the Rev. Walter Allen Simpson Rice, born a slave in South Carolina and later founded the Bordentown School in New Jersey. Her maternal grandparents were uneducated immigrants from Jamaica who worked as a janitor and a maid but were able to send all five of their children to college, including Rice’s mother, Lois Rice.
“As she liked to say, not bad for a poor colored girl from Portland, Maine,” Rice said of her mother.
That poor colored girl was later known as “the mother of the Pell Grant,” a federal college tuition subsidy program, for her work in its creation. She also gave birth to Susan Rice, a woman who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and his national security adviser from 2013 to 2017.
An administration that will look like America
The stories of these daughters of immigrants and descendants of the enslaved have become a familiar theme, told again and again by the people Biden has selected to be part of his team, to fulfill a campaign promise that his administration will “look like America.”
"These leaders have different backgrounds and life experience, and they bring to their roles different skills, perspectives and areas of expertise, and they all reflect the very best of our nation," said Kamala Harris, vice president-elect and a daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica.
The Biden-Harris transition team has been facing pressure from activist groups and are eager to show that their administration intends to expand on gender and racial diversity in top appointments.
“The incoming administration seems to really be touting those experiences — my understanding as a daughter of immigrants or my understanding as somebody who comes from a different class background,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, University of Rutgers.
Dittmar said gender, race and class diversity really gets to the heart of why and how representation of all types matters.
“They are bringing all of that experience and perspective and empathy to people who share those same experiences or struggles to some of the most important decision-making tables in this country,” she said.
Despite having put forward a diverse team of nominees in terms of ethnicity, experience and gender, Biden is criticized for not having enough ideological diversity, putting too much emphasis on personal relationship, choosing only longtime advisers and confidants he worked with during his decades in the U.S. Senate and as vice president during the Obama administration.
Biden has also avoided naming people who drew fire from the progressive wing of his Democratic Party, including Michèle Flournoy, a candidate for secretary of defense bypassed over criticism of her support on the Iraq and Afghanistan war and her ties to the defense industry. Instead, Biden picked Lloyd Austin, an African American retired, four-star general who was seen as the safer choice despite not meeting the requirement that military veterans be retired from active duty for at least seven years before taking the helm of the civilian agency.
Applause for diversity
Still, activists have applauded the diverse faces of Biden’s choices.
“To enact policies that are going to be meaningful for women and people of color and other marginalized groups, we need representation and the highest levels of government,” said Sarah Fleisch Fink, vice president for policy and strategy at the National Partnership for Women & Families.
These are other top administration posts to which Biden has nominated women and people of color so far:
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Marcia Fudge
Secretary of Health and Human Services: Xavier Becerra
Secretary of the Treasury: Janet Yellen
Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas
Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines
Director of the Office of Management and Budget: Neera Tanden
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers: Cecilia Rouse
Biden is expected to name more top officials next week.
Activists are calling on him to nominate a Black person as attorney general, but he is said to be considering Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who lost his bid for reelection in last month’s general election. Jones is a former federal prosecutor who successfully prosecuted two members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan group for the deadly 1963 bombing of a Black church in Alabama.