Democrats and Activists Say It's Time for a Black Woman as Press Secretary

Two of the top choices to fill the high-profile position of press secretary in President-elect Joe Biden's administration are Black women, spotlighting for Democrats and activists how significant it would be for the White House to have its first African-American press secretary.

Symone Sanders, a senior advisor for Biden since his campaign began in 2019, and one of his most stalwart defenders during the campaign, has been mentioned as one of the top choices since Biden's victory, along with deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield.

But an NBC News report Wednesday added Biden senior adviser and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' chief of staff, Karine Jean-Pierre, to the shortlist, saying that she "has emerged as a top candidate" for White House press secretary job.

Democrats and activists talked to Newsweek about why the first Black press secretary in history would fit the focus on race and racial justice the Biden administration has embraced.

"I think both Symone and Karine would be amazing press secretaries," said Aimee Allison, president of She The People, which works to increase the political power of women of color. "Unlike in 2016, there is broad acknowledgement that Black women had a broad and central role in delivering the White House and we're the trusted voices."

During the Obama years, Bill Burton, the deputy press secretary, was considered for the role but never held it.

I think both Symone and Karine would be amazing press secretaries. Unlike in 2016, there is broad acknowledgement that Black women had a broad and central role in delivering the White House and we're the trusted voices.
Aimee Allison, president of She The People

"It's been a long time coming to have an African-American at the podium full time speaking on behalf of the country," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and CBS political commentator. "We were on the verge of that happening during the Obama administration and it would be another forward-leaning move by Joe Biden to appoint a Black press secretary."

The press secretary briefing the American people on a daily basis was the norm before the Trump administration took over, and Biden's team has said daily briefings will return.

In that setup, the press secretary often emerged as the public face of the administration, which is why those who spoke to Newsweek said having someone who can authentically speak about issues of race, from African-Americans being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, to the fight for criminal justice reform, would be a boon for Biden after both issues were central to the election.

But Simmons, who was press secretary for former Senator Max Cleland in Georgia, as well as for the presidential runs of Bob Graham and Wesley Clark, added that "for too long, the political class has looked for Black people to only speak on Black issues."

If Sanders or Jean-Pierre assume the mantle, Simmons said, it perhaps would be more important to see them speaking about issues like foreign policy and trade, as well as business investments and data privacy.

"Just like having an African-American president, it means every issue is being discussed by a Black voice," he said.

Activists—those who supported other candidates during the primary and chose Biden with the full knowledge that they would push him on policy should he defeat Trump—can be expected to fight the administration on a host of issues. But on this one, at least, they said having a Black woman as the top spokesperson for the administration would be a plus.

"It's not a role an activist would challenge," said Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and principal at Black Futures Lab. She said it would be incredible not just to see a Black woman in the role, but a Black woman who reflects the values of the country behind the podium.

"After the last four years of misinformation and disinformation, I would be relieved to see someone like Karine behind that podium, someone who has a track record of being honest and direct," she added.

But some Democrats want the incoming Biden administration to remember that prioritizing diversity and the inclusion of African-Americans in senior roles should not fade away because Harris will be vice president and a Black woman might be press secretary.

Angela Rye, who co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed with Garza and others about the need for Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate, said she was disappointed by the rollout of Biden's senior staff, noting that for all the transition team made of the diversity of the hires, two of the four people of color work for Dr. Jill Biden, and the three senior roles closest to the president, including chief of staff, went to white men.

"I love Cedric Richmond, but I would argue he should have been chief of staff," she said. "It was great to see Julie Rodriguez, she's absolutely qualified to fill the role [of director of intergovernmental affairs] but most importantly, where were the Black women? It was egregious and ought not to be a sign of things to come."

A Black woman in the press secretary role would receive endless scrutiny—some motivated by race—Democrats and activists said.

In Georgia, when he filled a similar but lower profile role, Simmons said people called the Senate office to make threats against him. But others said its been plain to see that high-profile Black people, from LeBron James to Michelle Obama, are always going to receive added criticism, which shouldn't change how they approach the job.

"We cannot go forward in fear," Allison said, arguing that when the Trump administration did hold briefings, they were characterized by the "ugliness" of right-wing groups being allowed in, which "lowered the bar for the whole country."

"We can't be afraid of right-wing crazies anymore," she said. "They've had too much influence during the Trump administration."

karine jean pierre symone sanders
Karine Jean-Pierre (left) and Symone Sanders. Left: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn, Right: Paras Griffin/Getty Images/Getty