US president Joe Biden’s public promise to diversify the Supreme Court is getting attention, but his quiet effort to diversify another opaque and influential federal institution is getting results. Biden’s three nominees to the Federal Reserve will bring an unprecedented level of diversity to the central bank. If Sarah Bloom Raskin, Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson all join the Fed’s board of governors, which is more likely than not, then it will have the highest-ever number of Black members and the highest-ever number of women — including, in Cook, the first Black woman.
Change rarely comes without controversy, of course. Raskin, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for two different jobs during Barack Obama’s presidency, is now in some hot water over a misguided op-ed she wrote in May 2020 taking issue with fossil-fuel companies’ eligibility for emergency economic support. And Cook was forced to defend her academic record last week to a senator who had apparently read some anonymous criticism of it online. These criticisms look (and are) fundamentally ridiculous to any fair-minded person.
Cook trained at the University of California at Berkeley under the distinguished macroeconomists David Romer and Barry Eichengreen. She worked as a Treasury Department economist. She has been fellow at the Hoover Institution. She’s currently an economics professor at Michigan State. She served on Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers without generating any noteworthy complaints.
Yes, she stands out as a Black woman in a field where women and African-Americans are underrepresented. But what’s wrong with that? Representation has mattered in American politics since the very beginning, when Massachusetts’ John Adams was selected as vice president to balance out Virginia’s George Washington.
As my colleague Narayana Kocherlakota has long argued, the Fed’s historic neglect of racial and gender issues has been a distorting influence on policy. And while a push to diversify the Fed is not a cure-all for policymaking, it’s clearly a good idea. Beyond that, Cook’s major paper on racial inequality — “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African-American Patents, 1870 to 1940” — is exactly what critics of the excesses of recent anti-racist activism say they want: careful empirical work that attempts to demonstrate the actual harms of discriminatory activity. Her critics look petty and absurd.
Jefferson, the least-known of the three in Washington policy circles, doesn’t seem to be generating any meaningful opposition at all. He’s well-known and well-liked in the field, has mainstream views, and even has some Republican support. One can only wish that Biden had been as nimble in his approach to diversity at the Supreme Court.
He wants to elevate a Black woman to the high court, which is a fine idea. The best way to do that, however, would have been to do what he did with the Fed — pick someone who meets the criteria and fight for her on the merits. Having the pledge out there as an abstraction is awkward, and will do a disservice to whoever is ultimately selected by casting the slightest shadow of doubt over her. It’s true, as Democrats like to say, that both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump formally committed to selecting a woman for the Supreme Court before actually doing so. But the difference here, to be blunt, is that they were Republicans. Nobody worries that Republican presidents will be too committed to diversity. For a Democrat such as Biden, there is a cost to appearing publicly preoccupied with quotas.
Curiously enough, Biden’s more low-key approach has been successful not only with Fed governors, which after all aren’t lifetime appointments, but also with judges in the lower courts. Biden legions of new fans Before Biden’s presidency, eight African-American women had served as Circuit Court judges. He’s put three on the bench, with five more nominees waiting. An analysis by Robert Wheeler of the Brookings Institution shows that relative to the existing stock of federal judges, Biden is increasing representation for women, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Black Americans. He has also dramatically shifted the professional background of judges: More than one-third of his appointees are former public defenders.
What’s striking about these successes is that, while they haven’t necessarily won Biden legions of new fans, they haven’t provoked any significant backlash, either. Biden’s quiet but diligent focus on diverse appointments extends beyond the courts. His Cabinet is the most racially diverse in history by a large margin, and has more women serving than any previous Cabinet.
In all of these cases, Biden has achieved diversity by selecting well-qualified people — just as Jefferson (a former Fed economist), Raskin (a former Fed Board member) and Cook (a former CEA member) are all clearly suitable choices. Savvy brands have been slipping more multiracial families into their ads for several years now without making a big show of it, staying current with a changing society while making anyone who objects look ridiculous. With his Fed picks, and his choices for the lower courts, Biden stuck that landing perfectly. But note that this is a two-way street. Biden’s diversity successes have come in part because activists and their allies in Congress have mostly been willing to extend some trust and take yes for an answer. Nobody tried to pin him down on a commitment to diversifying the Fed, which made it easier for him simply to do it. There’s a place in politics for public pressure and loud demands. But particularly when it comes to representation, it is often better to work more quietly, so that the successes are achieved more gracefully.