Blog Inclusion in Public Sector Workplaces

Biden, DEI and Critical Race Theory

by Norma M. Riccucci:

President Biden has pledged his commitment, like President Obama before him, to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the U.S. federal government workforce. President Biden on his first day in office ended Trump’s efforts to restrict diversity training in the federal service and shortly afterward rescinded his ban on transgender persons serving openly in the military.

But there is still a lot of work to be done if President Biden genuinely seeks to achieve his goal of fostering diversity and social equity in the federal service. For example, the positions classified as the Senior Executive Service (SES), which are the highest positions of power, pay and prestige in the federal government, continue to be dominated by White persons. In 2013, 80.1 percent were White, and by 2017 they still held close to 80 percent of those high-level, policymaking positions. Women held 33.7 percent in 2013, and only 34 percent by 2017. Between those two time periods, Blacks lost 3.4 percent of those positions; Latinx lost 4.6 percent, and Indigenous Americans/Alaska Natives lost 1.1 percent; this, despite President Obama’s 2011 executive order calling on federal agencies to diversify the ranks of the SES.

In addition, the lowest income earners in non-SES positions in the federal government between 2010 and 2019 were Black women and men. In 2010, their median salary was $57,643. By 2019, it rose to $69,340. The median salary for Whites in 2010 was $70,509 and by 2019 it was $83,398. So why do these inequities persist? 

The answer lies in the myth or cult of merit, which continues to produce social inequality and injustice in the federal workplace. Since passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, the presumption has been that the federal service is a meritocracy. But merit never meant being “qualified” for a job; rather it was a means to keep patronage or politics out of the workplace. The merit system was never neutral and today it continues to allow for biased decision making in hiring and promotion. Indeed, a survey of federal employees in 2019 revealed that Black workers do not view merit as the primary driver of hiring or promotions. Instead, the biases stem from “homosocial reproduction,” the tendency for individuals making hiring and promotion decisions to select those who mirror their own social characteristics. 

Critical race theory (CRT) provides justification for President Biden to dismantle the merit system. CRT holds that law and policies are neither value-free nor neutral and are inextricably entwined with historical and social narratives, thus advancing and maintaining existing racial hierarchies. Racism under CRT is not limited to individual acts or interpersonal bigotry, but rather, it is structural and systemic and accomplished by laws and policies such as merit systems which may seem unintentional but are cloaked in choices that are racist. 

CRT training in the federal government is also needed. It would help to dispel the belief among workers that if you work hard, you can achieve anything, the common narrative of a meritocracy. The federal government has had diversity training programs in place for decades, but, although necessary, they have not gone far enough to produce structural and social change; if they had, there would be greater justice and equity in the workplace by now. The SES positions in federal government would be much more racially- and gender-balanced and federal pay would be more equitable. 

CRT training requires tackling not race head on, but as Kimberlé Crenshaw has said, the racial anxieties held by Americans. Telling White people that their privilege stems from historic, persistent racism may trigger defensiveness, denial or anger. This may be inevitable, but unless everyone works to change the institutions which provide privilege to some and oppression to others, social inequalities and injustice will persist and White supremacy will remain the norm. CRT has been so intellectualized and politicized in our society that putting it into practice has been challenging. Nonetheless, training companies have already begun to develop CRT training toolkits with a variety of strategies for educating workers. There will surely be bumps in the road, but now, President Biden stands at the threshold of effecting real, enduring change. And aggressive action certainly comports with his executive order issued on his first day in office, which calls for federal agencies to root out systemic racism and to take an institutional approach to redressing inequities throughout the federal government.

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About the author:

Dr. Norma M. Riccucci is a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University–Newark. She is the author of numerous publications and books including most recently, Policy Drift: Shared Powers and the Making of U.S. Law and Policy (New York University Press, 2018). Riccucci’s research interests lie in the broad area of public management, with specific interests in social equity policies and representative bureaucracy.