Asian-American Senators Speak Out About Lack of AAPI Diversity in Joe Biden's Cabinet: ‘Not Acceptable’

Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono called on the Biden administration this week to make a better effort to represent the AAPI community

Senator Tammy Duckworth, Senator Mazie Hirono
Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Sen. Mazie Hirono. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty; Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty

The Senate's only two Asian-American lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to make a better effort in choosing people with minority backgrounds for high-level positions in government.

The lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in President Joe Biden's cabinet picks thus far is "not acceptable," the two lawmakers, Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono, have said in recent days.

Duckworth, 53, and Hirono, 73, originally vowed Tuesday to block Biden's cabinet nominees moving forward unless the administration made a broader effort to increase the cabinet's AAPI representation.

The two senators backed down from that plan after several conversations with the White House, who tells PEOPLE it will now have an AAPI liaison, "who will ensure the community's voice is further represented and heard."

"The President has made it clear that his Administration will reflect the diversity of the country," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told PEOPLE in a statement. "That has always been, and remains our goal."

Ben Garmisa, a spokesperson for Duckworth, told PEOPLE in a statement that the senator "appreciates the Biden Administration's assurances that it will do much more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government," including the promise of a new senior official to be appointed as a liaison for the AAPI community.

"Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden's qualified nominees—which will include more AAPI leaders," Garmisa said of Duckworth.

However, that came after what CNN described as a "tense" back-and-forth between the senators and White House aides.

Senator Tammy Duckworth
Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Sarah Silbiger/Getty
Sen. Mazie Hirono
Sen. Mazie Hirono. Zach Gibson/Getty

"I've been talking to them for months and they're still not aggressive, so I'm not going to be voting for any nominee from the White House other than diversity nominees," Duckworth had told reporters Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. "I'll be a 'no' on everyone until they figure this out."

Hirono, who is Japanese-American and represents Hawaii, soon joined Duckworth, who is Thai-American and represents Illinois, in pushing the White House to increase its number of AAPI officials in order to properly represent the community.

"We're not just calling for API's. This is not about pitting one diversity group against them. So I'm happy to vote for a Hispanic or Black person and LGBTQ person and AAPI person," Hirono said, according to the AP. "I just like to see more diversity representation."

Biden defended his cabinet picks so far, telling reporters in Ohio on Tuesday: "We have the most diverse Cabinet in history."

The Biden administration has been lauded for its diverse cabinet picks, but the senators said that representation doesn't adequately include the country's AAPI community.

The lawmakers' pressure to make the White House commit to appoint more AAPI officials comes one week after a mass shooting in Georgia targeted three Asian spas, killing eight people—six of whom were women of Asian descent.

The shooting sparked a nationwide discussion about racism towards the country's AAPI community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden nominated Katherine Tai, who is Taiwanese-American, to be the U.S. Trade Representative, while Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is of Indiana descent, will be the nation's surgeon general.

During the tense exchanges with Duckworth earlier this week, Duckworth told CNN a White House aide had pointed to Vice President Kamala Harris—who is the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president—as an example of the White House's commitment to diversity.

Harris' late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who died in 2009, was Indian-American.

Duckworth told the network the explanation "is insulting."

"That's not something you would say to the Black caucus—that you have Kamala—we're not going to be putting any African Americans in the Cabinet," Duckworth said. "Why would you say that to AAPIs?"

Harris, speaking with CBS News on Wednesday, called the Biden administration's diversity "historic," but also voiced her support for broader representation within the upper levels of government.

"Representation matters," the vice president said. "And we've got to address it."

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