Let me begin with an obvious yet necessary statement: I write this piece as an ally, understanding that this is not my discussion to lead, but instead to support, vocally with conviction and ears open to listen to those at the forefront.
A call for more diversity in national security is not new. I am a man advocating for consistent and purposeful inclusion of women, particularly women of color, in national security development, debates, and prioritization. As a black man myself, I see little to no representation of male African-Americans within the national security community. And yet, I see even less of African-American women and other women of color.
Black women have been electrified and politically active for a long time, yet I see little to no representation of this cohort within the national security community on either side of the aisle. Democratic politicians, in particular, are culpable for perpetually taking this bloc for granted given black women’s dynamism in shifting Republican strongholds into battleground states. The political activism and perseverance of black women has not translated into the type of representation in staff that we’d hoped for in recent years.
But the world is changing – politics are changing — and we may have a unique opportunity to begin building the type of national security cohort that accurately reflects the best ideas and values of all Americans. So, the question remains: what will it take for these women’s efforts to be translated into representation in staff and the amplification of their voices in policymaking?
The problem is multifaceted. First, the desire for specific pedigrees often lauded by senior agency and administration leaders can immediately preclude an entire demographic. As National Security Adviser Susan Rice once said, national security agencies are too “white, male and Yale.” The homogeny in these associated backgrounds overlooks much-needed exposure to varying cultural views, the understanding of which goes beyond traditional academic credentials. Furthermore, much, if not all, of the desired academic rigor for a young staffer can be gained from a variety of institutions. While these skill sets are not always tied to Ivy League universities, for political appointees, the academic backgrounds for chosen candidates tend to be less diverse. As long as the most prominent programs remain predominantly white, appointees will continue to reflect this lack of diversity.
Second, as a community, national security professionals – like those in other fields – tend to gravitate towards candidates whose work is significantly familiar to them or a close colleague. People choose their subordinates and junior staffers through their professional networks and friends. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice. However, when you have a group that lacks representation in a field, it can be a barrier to entry at even the lowest levels. If an official doesn’t take a personal interest in someone’s development, that young professional might never see an opportunity to prove herself. If you have a homogenous pool of talent, outside groups will lack paths to success. Leaders who are not cognizant of this fact will continue to overlook promising young future national security experts.
When I worked as a member of the Obama Administration’s Presidential Personnel team, serving as liaison to the Departments of Defense and later Veterans Affairs, I advocated for more minorities to serve in vital roles. While the idea was accepted as valid and important, one issue to successful implementation appeared to be persistent: we had problems identifying candidates because the proper Democratic bench of professionals did not exist. While a few experienced and capable people of color did make it onto some hiring slates, often officials wanted to go with who they knew or someone for whom a close colleague advocated.
In an administration, you have limited time for junior development given the immediate demands of meeting the policy milestones in support of the President’s agenda. You want to take safe bets on staff decisions because time is precious — you don’t want to gamble. While this tendency is understandable, the recurring cycle perpetuates homogenous staffs and appointees. If leaders aren’t as willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity, they’ll fail to give opportunities to individuals who may not have advocates. This inequitable and flawed equilibrium necessitates investment in underserved groups – namely women of color – immediately. They deserve better.
Our diversity is our strength – the persistence of obscured, unrepresented voices will only make us weaker as a society and a nation. What all women have endured to rise through the ranks of the national security community on either side of the aisle is a tremendous feat. I would never endeavor to minimize these accomplishments. Women of color have experienced an additional strain navigating both societal and national security cultural pitfalls. This adds a contextual layer that makes many of these patriots true-to-life professional warriors. The progress of our nation away from its undemocratic, slavery-based beginning towards a realization of its potential and proclaimed values can be attributed in large part to the unceasing and often overlooked efforts of black women. With more women of color in higher positions of authority in national security, the United States will be better positioned to find its balance.
To properly build a candidate pool of future leaders in national security who understand all the complexities facing our country in twenty-first century world, we need to ensure we have staffers now at all levels with broad bases of life experience; we need policy programs that reflect society; and we need current leaders to expand their networks to include more diversity.
Women of color have a deeply profound and compelling American experience that provides them with a keenly sharp and unique voice in the protection of our nation and its allies. We would all be smart to listen to them more.