Black women have long been the often-overlooked backbone of the Democratic Party, including playing major roles in the 2020 election of President Joe Biden. As Biden has gone about assembling perhaps the most diverse cabinet and senior White House team in American history, Black women have emerged in unprecedented roles.
Beyond the historic nature of these appointments, the experience and agendas that the women are bringing to the Biden administration will play a large role in shaping its policies. Here are five Black women who are setting the agenda and taking the lead in the recently seated administration.
Vice President Kamala Harris
If the first 50 days of the Biden presidency are any indication, Vice President Kamala Harris will be extremely influential in the Biden-Harris administration. Harris, who served as attorney general for California and then represented the state as a U.S. Senator before assuming her current position, has remained active in the Senate chamber due to the unique 50-50 split between Democratic and Republican senators. Harris’ constitutional role as Senate president includes the power to cast tie-breaking votes, thus making the Democratic Party the majority party in the Senate.
Harris has already used her tie-breaking power to secure passage of the COVID-19 economic relief plan and consequentially, handing the administration its first major legislative victory as stimulus checks arrive for millions of Americans. In an evenly-split and deeply divided Senate, Harris will likely cast several tie-breaking votes and will be key to maintaining the administration’s policy agenda in the face of Republican resistance.
The vice president of the United States is generally viewed as the heir-apparent of the president, and Biden’s age has led to speculation that he may not seek a second term. Harris is therefore seen as being groomed for her own potential presidential run, and as such, has taken on a role much closer to that of a partner with Biden rather than a subordinate.
As reported by Bloomberg, Harris has accompanied Biden in nearly all of his public appearances so far, and The New York Times reported that she has taken on a significant amount of personal responsibility, such as contacting city leaders about the COVID-19 economic relief package. Harris has also been quickly boosting her foreign policy experience, holding solo calls with world leaders and addressing the United Nation’s Commission on the status of women. Harris is reportedly taking a lead role in the White House’s global health and cybersecurity policies, applying her experiences as attorney general of California and as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to these issues. Overall, Harris’ role has been so significant that Fox News is derisively asking who is really “in charge” in the administration. Partisan snark aside, Harris has already shown that she will be an influential leader alongside Biden.
Chair of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice
When Susan Rice was appointed as chair of the White House Domestic Policy Council, the choice left many scratching their heads. Rice, a lifelong foreign policy expert who has previously been U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser, had been on the shortlist for the role of secretary of state. Her appointment to the Domestic Policy Council seemed like a less influential position and unusual use of her skills.
However, the importance of appointing Rice became clearer once Biden took office. The president’s first executive order, issued on the day he took office, established a new role for the Domestic Policy Council in leading the administration’s efforts to promote and ensure equity and inclusion policies across the federal government. Biden has made racial justice and equity a centerpiece of his platform, reflecting both the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd and the central role of Black people in supporting Biden. By appointing Rice to head the Council, Biden has essentially given the lead role in implementing the administration’s racial justice agenda. Rice was front and center to comment and elaborate when Biden issued several executive orders aimed at promoting racial justice and equity.
As chair of the Council, Rice is additionally leading White House policy on issues such as healthcare and immigration, which have already emerged as major challenges for the Biden administration. As The New York Times reported, appointing Rice to this role is part of an effort to elevate the DPC to the status of better-known organizations like the National Security Council and National Economic Council. Placing Rice in the position to lead White House efforts on these issues demonstrates the importance that Biden has placed on these policies.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield
When Linda Thomas-Greenfield arrived at the United Nations headquarters a few weeks ago, the U.S. was just about to assume its turn as head of the U.N. Security Council, the organization’s most important decision-making body. She was thus thrust into the leadership of the international community.
“I not only had to hit the ground running, I’m actually hitting the ground sprinting,” she joked.
Thomas-Greenfield’s decades of diplomatic experience has more than prepared her for this role as the face of the United States, at a time when the new administration is attempting to re-engage with the United Nations and the global community as a whole. After former President Donald Trump spent four years denigrating the U.N.,
withdrawing from international agreements and alienating allies, many diplomats and U.N. officials welcomed Thomas-Greenfield — with whom many of them have a long history — and welcome the return of American leadership.
Thomas-Greenfield’s experience has gained her valuable political connections at home as well. Last year, she co-authored an article with retired diplomat William J. Burns laying out plans for restoring the State Department, which saw a steep decline in staff and morale under the Trump administration. Her close connections with the State Department are already having an impact there – she was one of the top officials consulted by the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken to help plan ways to increase diversity among U.S. diplomats. Her links to the State Department and to Burns, who has been nominated by Biden to lead the CIA, gives Thomas-Greenfield very powerful Washington connections to back up her agenda.
Among other policy priorities, Thomas-Greenfield’s extensive experience as a diplomat and policymaker for Africa, including a stint as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, will help revive U.S. policy towards the continent. For example, she recently signaled that she will help pressure Ethiopia to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the recent war against the former government of the country’s northern Tigray region.
Re-engaging Africa will also help the U.S. as it confronts the global influence of China, which has invested tens of billions of dollars in Africa as part of its growing global influence. U.S.-China relations will be one of the Biden administration’s top foreign policy challenges. After four years of near-isolationism on the part of the U.S. government, Thomas-Greenfield has the experience and energy to tackle the many foreign policy challenges that the U.S. now faces.
Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Cecilia Rouse
When Princeton School of Public and International Affairs Dean Cecilia Rouse was nominated to lead the Council of Economic Advisors, her many years of experience in Washington and in academia helped her achieve near-unanimous confirmation as the first Black person to hold this position.
She assumed leadership of the White House’s economic think-tank at a crucial time, as the Biden administration pushed through a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package to address the COVID-19 related economic downturn. As a key member of Biden’s economic team, she helped promote the large stimulus to help Americans in financial crisis or danger, pushing back against those who warned of inflation and sought to shrink the size of the recovery plan.
Rouse has brought to the White House not only the expertise to help shape economic recovery for the U.S. in general, but also a keen awareness of how race, gender and class shape opportunities within the larger economy. In her decades of researching economic inequality, she has amassed expertise on issues, such as the impact of student loan debt, that remain pressing for Biden to address. Rouse has pledged to repair the economy and rebuild it to be more equitable, declaring that economic recovery must include "increasing the availability of fulfilling jobs and leaving no one vulnerable to falling through the cracks."
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge
Marcia Fudge, who served eight terms as a U.S. Representative from Ohio, was confirmed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by a bipartisan vote this month. She became the first Black woman to head the department in over 40 years. Fudge's appointment comes at a crucial time, as 40 million people face possible evictions due to the COVID-19 economic crisis. With nearly half of Black and Latinx renters unsure if they can pay their rent on time, Fudge's role will be key in ensuring that people of color don't fall deeper into poverty and economic crisis. Beyond tackling the current housing emergency, Fudge pledged in her confirmation hearing to fight racial discrimination in housing policies and to increase Black homeownership.
To address a worsening housing crisis, she will have to repair HUD, which has fallen into disrepair under the neglect and hostility towards the agency displayed by Trump and his HUD secretary Ben Carson. Fudge's colleagues and allies, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are confident that she can turn HUD around and use it to achieve her progressive agenda. Though she has already faced conservative pushback for promoting housing equity, Fudge's determination to ensure fairer outcomes for Black people and other people of color is especially critical at this moment.
Fudge is one of many powerful and accomplished Black women who have been tasked with reshaping the country and restoring America's place in the world. Having relied on Black women to win the presidency and gain control of Congress, Biden and the Democratic Party are now counting on Black women to achieve progress at home and abroad.