We the Partnership

A revealing look at racial diversity in the federal government

By Brandon Lardy | July 14, 2020

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks have spurred a national conversation on systemic racism and white supremacy and forced both private and government institutions to contend with the realities of structural inequality. While the federal government uses a merit system of nine principles to ensure fairness and equity in hiring, pay and promotions, federal employees of color still face a biased system.

At first glance, the civil service appears to be racially unbiased. People of color make up about 40% of the U.S. population and about 38% of the full-time federal workforce. A closer look at the data, however, shows that people of color hold a smaller percentage of senior-level positions than their percentage of the workforce.

According to the latest data, people of color represent 46% of all full-time, entry-level employees but only 32% of senior-level positions. And within the Senior Executive Service—the elite corps of experienced civil servants responsible for leading the federal workforce—the disparity is even wider. Only 22% of all career SES members are people of color.

Government is not just failing to promote nonwhite employees, it is failing to hire them into professional positions in the first place. Black and other employees of color make up 53% of clerical positions but only 31% of the professional workforce, according to OPM’s FedScope data. People of color also aren’t equally represented across the executive branch. For example, white people make up 77% of the Office of Management and Budget, a federal agency that has significant impact on policy and the nation’s financial resources, while people of color are the majority at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an important organization but one with significantly less influence.

Overcoming racial injustice in the United States must include a transformation of the workforce that serves our collective interests. The good news is, many federal agencies are making progress. The Coast Guard, Farm Credit Administration, Government Accountability Office and Intelligence Community are including diversity, equity and inclusion into their strategic plans, and paying attention to issues ranging from how they recruit diverse groups of employees to how they retain and develop them.

And, recently, the U.S. Air Force made history by nominating its first Black Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and first female Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the highest positions for an officer and enlisted, respectively.

Federal leaders should look to these examples and commit to transforming their agencies into diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations—not for a checkbox, but as a matter of justice, and for more effective and representative government for the people of this country.

More blog posts that take a closer look at the federal workforce include:

Brandon Lardy