The Biden team's State Department diversity challenge

The administration is grappling with a pair of personnel pledges: to promote from within as it restores the diplomatic ranks

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The Biden administration faces a pair of personnel challenges as it looks to rebuild a hollowed-out State Department: promoting new leadership from within the career ranks, and fundamentally reshaping those ranks, which have long lagged other federal agencies in diversity efforts.

One walk down the portrait-lined halls of the State Department and it is easy to see why the culture of U.S. diplomats has long been described as “pale, male and Yale.” White men have overwhelmingly held senior positions through both Republican and Democratic administrations, and the State Department continues to lag far behind other federal agencies when it comes to making progress on diversity.

At a time when America itself is more diverse than ever, only 13 percent of the department’s senior executive service are people of color. And Black, Hispanic and Asian-American staff in senior levels across the foreign and civil service have only further declined in recent years, according to a 2020 report from the Truman Center.

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Changing the picture will not 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 single member of this department. It’s mission-critical,” Blinken, who is white, said at a news conference this month, adding, “I know there is more I could have done to push for and lead change on these issues.”

Creating that change, in part, will require starting at the top, as the Biden administration works to fill the nearly 90 vacant ambassadorships and dozens of senior positions within the State Department. But achieving that goal, alongside fulfilling its promise to promote from within an agency, could prove challenging.

The number of racial or ethnic minorities in top slots at the State Department actually decreased during the last four years, after some incremental progress under the three previous administrations. By the end of the Trump administration, only three of 189 U.S. ambassadors were Black, according to the Association of Black American Ambassadors, the lowest number in decades. Just four were Hispanic, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.

And there's another personnel concern in play as well: the proportion of top jobs held by foreign service professionals rather than political appointees.

Still, there are enough minority candidates internally for senior positions, a State Department Official familiar with the current composition of the agency told NBC News on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

A diverse group of mid-level current and former State Department officials recommended in a 2020 report that the Biden administration staff at least 75 percent of all senior positions with career professionals. That would be a significant change from former President Donald Trump's administration, which gave only 57 percent of those positions to foreign service officers. Former President Barack Obama allocated 70 percent of those positions to career diplomats.

Biden did commit to improving his predecessors' record, according to several career diplomats who attended a meeting with him during his visit in February to the State Department, but the administration has not specified a target.

The division between career and political candidates is not as clear as it might seem. Under longstanding rules, diplomats who have left within the last five years can be reinstated into the foreign service upon their return to the department.

“We simply cannot settle for an ambassadorial rank that does not include greater representation across the board,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC News. “And that means finding talent from both inside and outside of government to fill out those ranks.”

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A 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the percentage of racial or ethnic minorities working full time at the State Department rose to 32 percent, from 28 percent, from 2002-18. For African Americans during that same time period, the increase was smaller, to 7 percent, from 6 percent.

The current pool of senior foreign service officers of color within the department has declined even further. In 2008, 8.6 percent of senior foreign service officers were Black, but by December, that figure stood at just 3 percent. Asian Americans are also continually underrepresented, comprising only 4.8 percent of the senior ranks at the end of last year.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also been disproportionately affected by assignment restrictions that prevent them from working on issues related to the countries of their family’s origin, based on suspicion that they could have divided loyalties.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former State Department employee, said he received a letter barring him from assignments related to the Korean Peninsula simply because of his last name.

“I had previously worked in Afghanistan for State. I had a top secret security clearance. But here was a letter saying we don’t trust you,” he said on Twitter last month after shootings at spas in the Atlanta area left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent. “What confused me more is that I didn’t even apply to work on Korea. The State Department was proactively telling 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 compared to white counterparts with similar qualifications, the Government Accountability Office study found.

“Unless and until you've got people who are in management positions and senior positions who are bringing a different outlook, mentality, it's going to be hard,” Brett Bruen, a white former 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 department, but then they get frustrated and get into challenging situations where they're not getting supported.”

Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who is Black, was recently appointed to the newly elevated position of chief diversity and inclusion officer, reporting directly to the office of the secretary. In addition to the diversity of the candidates themselves, Abercrombie-Winstanley has recommended that criteria for both career and political ambassadors should include an assessment of the nominee’s track record in advancing diversity and inclusion, along with an examination of their record on discrimination and harassment.

To date, the Biden administration has not officially adopted that recommendation, but the State Department official told NBC News that questions could still be added to the candidates’ applications.

“This is a profound problem at the State Department, and across the entire national security establishment,” Sullivan said. “We have more work to do up and down the ranks to elevate those voices and perspectives so that our entire national security enterprise looks like America.”

Voices inside the State Department say they're looking for change. “We have to build, rebuild trust in the organization,” the State Department official said. “We've been saying, Oh, we want to do better. We want it to look like America, and the numbers speak for themselves.”