A selection of their conversation is presented below, edited for clarity:
Edward-Isaac Dovere: President-elect Biden said he would have the most diverse cabinet in American history. Is he fulfilling his promise?
James Clyburn: I think so. It seems that way to me. I’ve looked at the overall diversity of all of his nominees. I think it’s shaping up very, very well. I would always caution, however, that diversity to me goes beyond skin color. It gets into backgrounds and experiences. And I think that’s what’s so important here. It also gets into what our party stands for. If we were to limit this concern to skin color, then I would be satisfied with Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. I am far from satisfied with that.
Dovere: There’s a lot of ideological diversity in the Democratic conference at this point. There have been a lot of questions of whether Joe Biden’s cabinet is progressive enough. People like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised questions about that. What would you say to that?
Clyburn: There is nobody in the Democratic Party that is more concerned about police behavior than I am. Nobody. I’ve got a 25-year-old grandson that I worry about every time he gets into his automobile. I’ve had the experience of growing up in the South, where I have lived under that kind of oppression and suppression. Nobody is ever more concerned about affordable housing, and I have a record here in this Congress to prove it. I’m a flaming progressive on all of those issues, but I’m also concerned about allowing my opponents to weaponize my words and phrases. That’s why I have spoken out strongly against us using catchphrases that can undercut the movement.
That’s what happened to us back in the 1960s. I organized the very first sit-in in South Carolina. John Lewis was first physically beaten in South Carolina. And I know what happened to our movement when "Burn, baby, burn" became the clarion call. And they kicked John Lewis out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee because he refused to adopt that sloganeering.
And that’s all those of us who are progressive. It’s kind of interesting to hear what people say about John Lewis today. We have lionized him. And he is deserving of every bit of it, and even more. But within a year after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which he nearly gave his life for, they kicked him out of SNCC. So that’s all I’m talking about here. And so I don’t see why people cannot understand that.
Dovere: One of the lessons from the early Obama years that many people took was: You’ve got to move quickly. If you wait around, then it’s too late. So what do you do? We haven’t had any of the systemic reimagining of education or the economy—all the things that people are talking about at the beginning of this pandemic. What is the first thing, beyond the basics of COVID-19 relief and recovery? Where would you have the Biden administration start?