By Terrance Turner
May 5, 2022
President Joe Biden has named Karine Jean-Pierre as the next White House press secretary. She is the first Black woman and first out gay person ever to serve in that role.
“Karine not only brings the experience, talent, and integrity needed for this difficult job, but she will continue to lead the way in communicating about the work of the Biden-Harris administration on behalf of the American people,” Biden said in a statement. Jean-Pierre will take over the role on May 13 — the last day for current press secretary Jen Psaki. (She is reportedly leaving the administration to take a commentator role at MSNBC.)
Psaki introduced her successor today during a press briefing, introducing Jean-Pierre as “my friend, my colleague, my partner in truth”. Psaki noted the historic nature of Jean-Pierre’s appointment: “Representation matters, and she is going to — she will give voice to so many,” Psaki said, “and show so many what is truly possible when you work hard and dream big.”
Born in Martinique (a Caribbean island territory of France) to Haitian parents, Karine Jean-Pierre grew up in Queens, New York. (Her family moved to New York City when she was 5, according to the Haitian Times.) Her parents — a taxi driver father and caregiver mother — both worked long hours. “I did not learn to read until I was in the third grade,” she later wrote. My parents, working multiple jobs, were not in a position to help me with my daily schoolwork.”
Instead, it was young Karine who had to help them. Because of her parents’ busy schedules, she had to take care of her siblings. “I would feed my sister, who was born in 1982 when I was seven, from the reheated food my mother prepared every morning. My brother was born in 1984 when I was nine. It was often my job not just to give him his bottle and change his diaper but to make his appointments to see the pediatrician,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir Moving Forward. She also walked her siblings to school and took them to the library.
Prone to working 12-hour days, her parents were pursuing the “American dream”. She told PBS in 2019: “They came here for the American dream that in many ways eluded them. They still live check-to-check, but in their eyes, because I made it to the White House, because their daughter went to Columbia, they have received it.”
Jean-Pierre came out to her parents at 16, an experience she recounts in her memoir “Moving Forward”. She later graduated from the New York Institute of Technology and attended Columbia University. While studying in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), she served in student government and decided to pursue politics.
After graduation from SIPA in 2003, Jean-Pierre worked as director of legislative and budget affairs for New York City Council Member James Gennaro of Queens. She made the leap to Washington, D.C., to become an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Walmart Watch in 2006. In 2008, she was regional political director for both the John Edwards and Barack Obama presidential campaigns.
In 2011, Jean-Pierre became Deputy Battleground States Director for President Obama’s re-election campaign. She managed his political engagement in key states and developed campaign strategy. It was during her time in the Obama White House that she met then-Vice President Joe Biden.
They were flying aboard Air Force Two, the vice president’s designated aircraft, after a campaign rally. She recalled in her book that Biden one-on-one “is as friendly and talkative as he appears”. He spoke to her with genuine interest, despite being extremely busy. It would be the start of what would be a game-changing professional relationship.
In 2014, Jean-Pierre joined the faculty at Columbia, where she served as a lecturer. In 2016, she joined the political action committee MoveOn as senior advisor and national spokesperson. In that capacity, she moderated a 2019 town hall discussion that featured then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). They were discussing the gender pay gap when an anima rights protester jumped on stage to take the microphone from Harris.
“I thought, ‘She’s a sitting senator who’s running for president, a woman of color, anything can happen,’” Jean-Pierre said, noting that she was acting on instinct. “And I just thought, ‘It’s going to go bad and I cannot let this happen’.” She sprang into action, stepping between the protester and Harris until security (including Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff) removed the protester from the stage.
The next year, Jean-Pierre became a senior adviser for the Biden presidential campaign. Her new position was announced in May 2020. By August, she had been named chief of staff for Harris’ vice-presidential campaign — becoming the first Black woman and first out lesbian to ever serve in such a role, according to NBC News.
“As a Black gay immigrant who comes from a working-class family, I know that America hasn’t always worked for everyone,” she told Out Magazine in 2020. “And I know that America still doesn’t work for everyone. The truth of the matter is we have a long way to go. But that’s what I’m working toward: mobilizing people around this shared vision of what an America that works for everyone could look like – and then making it happen.”