President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Columnist

President-elect Donald Trump was barely mentioned at the White House Summit on Diversity and Inclusion in Government, but he wasn’t ignored.

Top career civil servants and Obama administration political appointees gathered Monday to discuss the importance of a federal workforce that looks like America at all levels, just weeks before the new president, who was overwhelmingly rejected by voters of color, takes office.

Trump gained political notoriety by fronting a racist birth certificate campaign to delegitimize Barack Obama, the first black president. Trump then ran a campaign that started with bashing Mexicans and was tarred by his vulgar misogyny. It speaks volumes that he was backed by the Ku Klux Klan, an American Nazi leader, and hailed with Nazi salutes, even as he rejected their support.

With that context the summit, planned before his electoral college victory, took on even greater significance.

No one was openly critical of Trump during the morning plenary sessions. That would have been impolitic, particularly given the graciousness of the president and first lady toward the incoming occupants of the White House.

Indeed, participants seemed to expect the diversity effort to continue under Trump, despite his actions and statements, because it is “imperative,” in the words of acting office of personnel management director Beth Cobert.

“The bottom line is simple,” she said in terms Trump can appreciate. “We cannot afford to leave talent and resources on the table.”

Yet Trump’s reputation provides good reason for trepidation, as some speakers alluded to — if only obliquely.

“Given the nature of this campaign on this issue of diversity and inclusion, I’m sure that there is more than the usual amount of concern and questions,” said Shaun Donovan, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director.

That is “all the more reason,” he added, that career officials “should be thinking about how you step up, how you join together in the coming months and years to make sure that this issue gets carried on.”

Carrying on efforts to expand federal workforce diversity after Obama’s departure was a repeated message at the summit.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, deputy secretary of energy, said “the work we have begun to date has to be extended across administrations” and how deeply disappointing it would be if that work was “lost or dropped.”

Although Gilbert Sandate, chair of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government, said the Obama administration has had “inconsistent, spotty success in advancing diversity,” he also praised the president for establishing “one of the most ambitious, multipronged, systematic efforts to institutionalize hiring excellence in government.”

The summit grew from Obama’s 2011 Executive Order “establishing a coordinated government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.”

Sandate does not expect similar efforts under Trump.

“Trump’s stated and known views about diversity and inclusion in general … do not bode well for a government workforce that looks like America anytime soon,” said Sandate, who was not at the summit. “I’m afraid the challenge under the Trump administration will be to dig in and fight to hold onto the diversity and inclusion gains made thus far, lest they be quickly eroded or eliminated entirely.”

Cobert, who this year said that “one of the most challenging barriers to diversity and inclusion is unconscious bias,” cited three examples of “affirmative steps” taken by the administration “to build a diverse workforce”:

  • In November, the federal government “exceeded the president’s goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities into the federal workforce over five years.”
  • The Agriculture Department’s use of “blind applications” that don’t include the names of candidates helped increase the percentage of women in its Senior Executive Service (SES) to 39 percent, an increase of almost 50 percent.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration’s “concerted effort to broaden the recruitment effort” led to a significant increase in job offers to Hispanic candidates and women.

“These are examples of real progress,” Cobert said in prepared remarks.

True. Yet these success stories also tell us how far away parity remains because of the racism, sexism and implicit bias that makes real inclusion an elusive goal.

Female senior executives, for example, remain well below their percentage of the general population at the Agriculture Department and across government. The FAA’s efforts resulted in 28 percent of job offers to women, although women hold up half the sky, as Mao Zedong reminded us.

Governmentwide, women were 34.4 percent of the SES workforce in fiscal 2015. The Hispanic-Latino category was a minuscule 2.9 percent, according to an OPM report. The percentage of African American senior executives, however, has increased considerably during the Obama years. In 2008, before he took office, black employees were 8.2 percent of the SES. That had increased to 11.3 in 2015.

Without mentioning the president-elect, Sherwood-Randall capsulized the call for civil servants to continue the fight for greater diversity under Trump with this simple directive: “Speak truth to power.”

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