Commitments to diversity in national security must go beyond Black History Month
Black History Month is a typical time for the country – including our national security establishment – to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans with remarkable legacies in their respective fields. We rightfully celebrate the achievements of African-American national security leaders, including former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and others. Honoring the contributions of these trailblazers is critical as our nation looks towards the future to address a range of challenges. Celebrations of these contributions, however, must extend beyond Black History Month.
Despite the honorable service of many African-American leaders who have made their marks in this field, the current national security establishment remains overwhelmingly and alarmingly white and male. This reality is in stark contrast many other parts of our government. While the U.S. Congress last year ushered in the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress ever with 120 members of color, we have not seen needed change in our national security leadership.
In 2015, the White House National Security Strategy laid out the necessity of a diverse national security workforce as a strategic asset that enhances the ability of the United States to lead on the global stage. However, the Trump administration has made it clear that racial, gender, and religious diversity is not a priority among its national security ranks – particularly among senior leadership. The president’s lack of concern about the diversity of his closest national security advisors has the potential to have a chilling effect on national security institutions for decades to come. White House-released imagery capturing defining national security moments, such as the aftermath of the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, shows President Trump surrounded by almost exclusively white men. Such photos reinforce commentary by Susan Rice that the national security field is “white, male, and Yale.”
Across the national security establishment, including in the Intelligence Community, Department of State, and our armed forces, representation in senior leadership by African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans, consistently lags behind the lower ranks and behind the demographics of the country as a whole. Having an insular group continuously directing the future of U.S. national security not only limits our nation’s ability to analyze and respond to future global challenges, but also hinders our creativity to respond to rising global threats. Anecdotes by former African-American diplomats also confirm how their backgrounds successfully facilitated trust with key international partners to advance U.S. interests in ways that their white counterparts were not able to. The private sector, also slow to come around to the need and positive effects of diversity, has realized that diversity doesn’t just better their corporate culture – it is also good for their bottom line.
That is why I call into question why this administration and prominent national security institutions fail to be more inclusive when there has been no shortage of qualified and diverse national security talent. The next generation of Susan Rices and Jeh Johnsons exist, all of whom possess a vast range of cultural, linguistic, and religious experiences. The higher ranks of our national security establishment require dynamic experiences and skillsets in an increasingly globalized world, and we cannot exist in a world where leadership intentionally stunts its own growth by keeping out diverse voices. This is even more critical in a world that is, of course, mostly non-white. More importantly, our majority-white national security ranks belies the ideals that we have been projecting throughout the world—that we are proud to be a multicultural nation.
As the sole African-American chairman of a national security committee in Congress, I am committed to building more inclusive practices and educational and career pipeline programs that diversify the national security workforce at all levels. There is legislation pending before Congress right now, often bipartisan, that I and others have introduced that will improve the diversity in our national security establishment. We must inspire young leaders from diverse communities to pursue national security careers, such as with the Department of Homeland Security. Congress must also ensure that these agencies have the best hiring and retention practices so we can maintain and nurture the best talent.
As we reflect on the achievements of notable African-American national security leaders during Black History Month, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a homogeneous workforce is not in our national interest. “Our diversity is not a source of weakness; it is a source of strength, it is a source of our success,” noted former Secretary of State Colin Powell. So, let us draw upon this strength 365 days a year— not just during Black History Month—in order to fully harness the fullest potential of our national security workforce.
Thompson is Chairman of House Committee on Homeland Security.