If affirmative action was what conservatives think it is, it would look like Donald Trump's Cabinet
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that until roughly five weeks ago, former Texas Governor Rick Perry did not know what the US Department of Energy did.
"When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state," the Times wrote.
"In the days after, Mr. Perry ... discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about."
Rick Perry's alleged ignorance about his new job isn't even his biggest disqualifier. After a presidential primary debate in 2011, the former governor said that if he were elected president, the Department of Energy would be one of the first federal agencies he'd get rid of.
But Perry is just part of a bigger strategic disaster. With each appointee to his Cabinet, the president-elect seems increasingly hellbent on filling jobs with the people least equipped to perform them — or worse, most likely to undermine them entirely. His approach is less merit-based than it is affirmative action for rich, white conservatives with few qualifications for their office and deep commitments to pro-corporate ideology.
During her confirmation hearing, Trump's pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos revealed she was ignorant of even the most basic debates that have roiled the education community for years. Her lobbying war against accountability for charter schools has contributed to her home state of Michigan having among the highest-number of failing charters in the nation. Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has a track record of advancing the interests of oil companies over the environment and has dabbled in climate change denial. His home state, Oklahoma, has seen a staggering increase in earthquakes in recent years due to oil fracking and poor wastewater disposal.
Trump's approach to his Cabinet mirrors practically every myth conservatives have spread about affirmation action. Twenty-one of Trump's 24 Cabinet appointees are white; 19 are white men, rounding out the least diverse presidential administration since the Ronald Reagan era. Considering that Trump's picks are disproportionately unqualified white millionaires, it's fair to say they're getting an unfair boost despite a wealth of better-qualified alternatives.
For decades, the right has criticized and caricatured affirmative action — the practice of using race, gender and other identity-based measures as factors in hiring or university admission decisions — as giving an unfair leg-up to underqualified minorites (or women) at the expense of more qualified whites (often men). This, the practice's detractors argue, constitutes its own form of discrimination.
"There were people in my class with lower grades who weren't in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into [the University of Texas in Austin], and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin," Abigail Fisher, a college applicant who brought a failed anti-affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, said, according to ProPublica. "I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?"
In fact, white women are among affirmative action's greatest beneficiaries. If one excuses the anachronism, the U.S. government has for most of its history dedicated itself to forms of affirmative action that benefitted whites. A key example is the New Deal in the 1930s, where the federal government created an entire social safety net that excluded black people while helping millions of whites get jobs, housing and retirement benefits.
By almost every conceivable metric, Trump's Cabinet embodies the worst of what the right claims affirmative action is doing. The only substantive difference is that the beneficiaries this time are mostly white, rich and ideologically conservative — not to mention unqualified. As a result, Republicans will rush to have them confirmed in their Cabinet posts regardless of their obvious disqualifiers. The rest of us can only watch in horror.