(The Root) — After months spent trying to assuage concerns that President Obama's second-term Cabinet was shaping up to be about as diverse as a Republican National Convention, the administration reached a major diversity milestone on Monday. The president formally nominated Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., to become the new transportation secretary. Foxx becomes the first African American nominated to a Cabinet post during the president's second term.
As The Root has previously reported, the president's White House staff is extremely diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but in recent months the president appears to have struggled to construct a Cabinet that reflects a similar measure of diversity.
Though it was widely rumored that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who is African American, would be nominated for secretary of state, she withdrew herself from consideration. Her withdrawal, sparked by conservative furor over her remarks related to the Benghazi, Libya, tragedy, made her a symbol of the administration's diversity struggles. It was noted by frustrated progressives that white males were nominated and confirmed to a number of key posts. Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry became secretary of state, while former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel became secretary of defense.
Since that time, the president has seemed to directly address such critical headlines as "Obama's Cabinet Shaping Up to be a Boys' Club." He has nominated a number of women to key roles within the administration, including Sally Jewell, who recently became secretary of the interior; Gina McCarthy, who has been nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and Julia Pierson, the first woman ever to head the U.S. Secret Service.
But all of these women are white.
New York Rep. Charles Rangel spoke for many progressives of color when he summed up the Cabinet's racial-diversity problems as "embarrassing as hell." If confirmed, Foxx would become the third African American transportation secretary. He was preceded in that distinction by Rodney Slater, who served in the role in the Clinton administration, and William Thaddeus Coleman Jr., who served in the Ford administration.
The nomination marks a somewhat meteoric political rise for Foxx (a 2012 The Root 100 honoree), who became mayor of a major city before the age of 40. Now 41, he is poised to become one of the youngest Cabinet members Obama has had. Secretary Kerry is 69, Secretary Hagel is 66 and Secretary Jewell is 58.
At a press conference officially introducing Foxx to Americans, President Obama cited Foxx's leadership in investing in transportation while mayor as a testament to his qualifications for the role of transportation secretary. The president elaborated, saying that outgoing Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had advised the president that having positive relationships with mayors and governors "is essential" to being transportation chief. Of Foxx the president said, "He's got the respect of his peers, mayors, governors all over the country."
Foxx is not the first member of his family to serve a president. President Obama disclosed during the press conference that Foxx's grandmother, who was in attendance, worked in the White House in the Truman administration, though he did not detail what her role was. As the president further acknowledged Foxx's family members, he thanked the mayor's "two good-looking kids," a moment noteworthy because the same compliment sparked controversy when the president applied it to current California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Although Foxx's nomination represents a significant breakthrough in terms of diversity in his second-term Cabinet, the president still has a way to go before matching the diversity of his first, which included African Americans (Eric Holder as attorney general, a position he still holds), Latinos (Hilda Solis as secretary of labor and Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior), Asian Americans (Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs and Steven Chu as secretary of energy) and a number of women (Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services and Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security) in key senior Cabinet posts.
Ironically, in the eyes of some, Foxx could represent a minor diversity setback for the administration — political diversity, that is. A Democrat, Foxx is replacing a Republican. But in his remarks, Foxx indicated that he wanted to continue the tone of bipartisanship for which LaHood's tenure has been notable. LaHood credited his long-standing friendship with President Obama as key to his decision to take the role, and their shared commitment to bipartisanship as instrumental in their shared successes.
Foxx said that roads and rails are not "Democratic" or "Republican," adding, "We must work together."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.