WASHINGTON – The Biden administration faces a pair of personnel challenges as it seeks to rebuild a hollowed-out State Department: promoting new leadership within the career ranks and fundamentally reshaping those ranks, which have long been lagging behind other federal agencies in diversity efforts.
A stroll through the halls lined with State Department portraits and it’s easy to see why the culture of American diplomats has long been described as “pale, masculine and Yale.” White males have overwhelmingly held senior positions in Republican and Democratic administrations, and the State Department continues to lag far behind other federal agencies when it comes to making progress on diversity.
In a time when America itself is more diverse than ever, only 13% of senior executives in the department are people of color. And black, Hispanic, and Asian-American staff at the top echelons of foreign and civil service have only declined in recent years, according to a 2020 report from the Truman Center.
Changing this won’t be easy for President Joe Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a familiar face in national security and foreign policy.
“Promoting diversity and inclusion is the job of every member of this department. It’s mission critical, “Blinken, who is white, said at a press conference this month, adding,” I know I could have done more to push and lead change on these issues. . “
Part of creating that change will have to start at the top, as the Biden administration strives to fill the nearly 90 vacant ambassadorial positions and dozens of high-level positions within the State Department. But achieving that goal, while keeping his promise to promote within an agency, could prove difficult.
The number of racial or ethnic minorities in the top spots in the State Department has actually declined over the past four years, after some incremental gains under the previous three administrations. At the end of the Trump administration, only three of 189 American ambassadors were black, according to the Association of Black American Ambassadors, the lowest number in decades. Only four were Hispanic, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.
And there is another concern about the personnel involved as well: the proportion of key positions held by foreign service professionals rather than those appointed by political parties.
Still, there are enough minority candidates internally for senior positions, a State Department official familiar with the agency’s current makeup told NBC News on condition of anonymity because they were not. allowed to speak publicly.
A diverse group of mid-level officials and former State Department officials recommended in a 2020 report that the Biden administration employ at least 75% of all leadership positions with career professionals. It would be a significant change from the administration of former President Donald Trump, which gave only 57% of those positions to foreign service officers. Former President Barack Obama has assigned 70% of these posts to career diplomats.
Biden has vowed to improve the record of his predecessors, according to several career diplomats who attended a meeting with him during his February visit to the State Department, but the administration did not specify a target. .
The division between career candidates and political candidates is not as clear as it may seem. Under long-standing rules, diplomats who have left within the past five years can be reinstated in the foreign service upon their return to the ministry.
“We simply cannot be satisfied with an ambassadorial rank that does not include greater representation at all levels,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC News. “And that means finding talent both inside and outside of government to fill those ranks.”
A 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the percentage of racial or ethnic minorities working full-time at the State Department increased to 32%, from 28% between 2002 and 2018. For African Americans during the year same period, the increase was smaller, at 7 percent, from 6 percent.
The current pool of senior foreign service officers of color within the department has shrunk further. In 2008, 8.6 percent of senior foreign service officers were black, but in December that figure was only 3 percent. Asian Americans are also continually under-represented, making up just 4.8% of senior executives at the end of last year.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also been disproportionately affected by posting restrictions that prevent them from working on issues related to their family’s home countries because they suspect they might have divide loyalties.
Rep. Andy Kim, DN.J., a former State Department employee, said he received a letter barring him from performing assignments related to the Korean Peninsula simply because of his last name.
“I had previously worked in Afghanistan for the state. I had a top secret security clearance. But here’s a letter saying we don’t trust you, ”he said on Twitter last month after shootings at Atlanta-area spas killed eight, including six women of Asian descent. . “What confused me the most is that I didn’t even apply to work on Korea. The State Department proactively told me they didn’t trust me.
Overall, racial and ethnic minority staff are up to 29 percent less likely to be promoted within the State Department than their white counterparts with similar qualifications, according to the Government Accountability Office study.
“Unless and until you have people in leadership positions and in leadership positions that bring a different perspective and mindset, it’s going to be tough,” Brett Bruen, former white foreign service officer and director of global engagement in the Obama White House, told NBC News. “You get a lot of [diverse] people who come into the service but then become frustrated and find themselves in difficult situations where they are not supported. “
Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who is black, has recently been appointed to the newly senior role of Head of Diversity and Inclusion, reporting directly to the secretary’s office. In addition to the diversity of the candidates themselves, Abercrombie-Winstanley recommended that the criteria for career and political ambassadors include an assessment of the candidate’s background in promoting diversity and inclusion, as well as a review of its history of discrimination and harassment.
To date, the Biden administration has not formally adopted this recommendation, but the State Department official told NBC News that questions could still be added to candidate nominations.
“This is a deep problem in the State Department and throughout the national security establishment,” Sullivan said. “We still have work to do in the ranks to raise those voices and perspectives so that our entire national security enterprise looks like America.”
Voices within the State Department say they are seeking change. “We have to build, restore confidence in the organization,” said the State Department official. “We said, Oh, we want to do better. We want her to look like America, and the numbers speak for themselves. “