Rice, a foreign policy adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has long been a champion of diversity and inclusion in the national security arena.
Four years ago this month, in the last days of the Obama administration, she sat for an interview with me in her White House office just two days after the death of her mother and talked about parental and sibling efforts to advance inclusion. Diversity, she said then, “is kind of a family enterprise.”
Now she brings the drive and determination that permitted an interview at that difficult time to a whole-of-government enterprise that goes well beyond the regular confines of diversity rhetoric about staffing and contracting, and into every program of every federal agency.
While her previous White House bosses were committed to equality, “never have we had a president who … on his first day and in his first week, has made racial justice and equity the centerpiece of his presidency,” Rice said in an interview Wednesday. “In every department and in all aspects of what we do, we need to be intentional about infusing equity and racial justice.”
That emphasized her news conference statement that “every agency will place equity at the core of their public engagement, their policy design, and program delivery to ensure that government resources are reaching Americans of color and all marginalized communities — rural, urban, disabled, LGBTQ+, religious minorities, and so many others.”
In his Inauguration Day executive order on racial equity, Biden instructed Rice to “coordinate efforts to embed equity principles, policies, and approaches across the Federal Government.” His small but powerful Office of Management and Budget will determine whether “agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals.”
Each agency is required within 200 days of the Jan. 20 order to review certain programs and report to Rice on systemic barriers hampering access to benefits, services and procurement opportunities.
Biden said the government should “allocate resources to address the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly, and equally in underserved communities, as well as individuals from those communities.” This harks back to a justification for reparations for African American enslavement, but the White House has been silent on that.
In addition to his Inauguration Day directive, Biden’s racial equity initiative included four executive orders signed this week covering fair housing, ending the Justice Department’s use of private prisons, reaffirming tribal sovereignty and fighting xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Without relying on weasel words and feel-good sloganeering about diversity and inclusion, Biden has directly accused the federal government of inflicting misery on Black people and others.
“During the 20th century, Federal, State, and local governments systematically implemented racially discriminatory housing policies that contributed to segregated neighborhoods and inhibited equal opportunity and the chance to build wealth for Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American families, and other underserved communities,” he said Tuesday in a memo to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “The Federal Government must recognize and acknowledge its role in systematically declining to invest in communities of color and preventing residents of those communities from accessing the same services and resources as their white counterparts.”
Though Biden’s initiative goes beyond diversity and inclusion, the intentional failures to equally serve all Americans perhaps could have been avoided had the government been fully diverse and inclusive in its employment. That point was not specifically addressed in Biden’s directives, but he did revoke the Trump executive order that effectively halted diversity and inclusion training in federal agencies.
“The limited diversity in decision-making affects both the design and delivery of government programs and services,” said Shirley A. Jones, president of Blacks in Government. “The underrepresentation of diverse perspectives results in programs that underrepresent the needs of the broader population.”
She pointed to statistics showing that the Senior Executive Service (SES), the highest civil service rank, is overwhelmingly White and male. Hispanic/Latino employees are just 2.7 percent of the SES, far below their portion of the population. African Americans fare better, but still are underrepresented at 10.7 percent.
Despite those statistics, with a Black vice president and a Black domestic policy adviser alongside others, Biden’s White House team is positioned to push what Rice calls “an unprecedented effort by a brand new president and his administration to elevate the issues of racial justice and equity for all” and to “embed in concrete and tangible ways, these principles into all that we do.”
Stressing that racial equity programs benefit the entire population, Rice added that Biden “put the finger on the chest of everybody in his administration to be with the program. … While this is the moral thing to do and the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do if we’re going to increase economic growth and create jobs.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this column indicated Rice used profanity when discussing policy. Rice used profanity during pleasantries at the beginning of the interview.