Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Racial Justice is a National Security Priority: Perspectives from the Next Generation

| July 17, 2023


In the words of Walter White, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1929–1955, “Race discrimination threatens our national security. We can no longer afford to let the most backward sections of our population endanger our country by persisting in discriminating practices. We must meet the challenge of our neighbors, not only because discrimination is immoral, but also because it is dangerous.”1 What was true more than half a century ago continues today.

On his first day in office, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 13985, entitled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”2 As the Biden Administration’s first executive order in office, it signified a symbolic commitment to addressing the systemic racism that has plagued the United States for centuries. In the wake of historic nation-wide Black Lives Matter protests, EO 13985 set the tone that his administration was serious about delivering on the promises of increased racial equity after a hard fought election campaign.

Executive Order 13985 directed the federal government to take a comprehensive approach to advancing racial equity, including by identifying and addressing racial disparities in their policies and programs. It asked the head of each U.S. federal agency to conduct a review within 200 days examining whether underserved communities faced systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities related to the agency’s programs and policies.

Executive Order 13985 was a significant step forward in the fight for racial
equity in the United States government. It was followed by several other EOs that
established a federal framework for targeting systemic racism within the federal
workforce and in the federal government’s domestic policies:

  • “Executive Order 13985 National Security Memorandum on Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National Security Workforce, Institutions, and Partnerships” from February 2021
  • “Executive Order 14035 Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Government” from June 2021
  • “Executive Order 14091 Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through The Federal Government” from February 2023

Together, these Executive Orders signal the Biden Administration’s decision to address systemic racism within its institutions and policies and improve U.S. national security.

The federal prioritization of diversity prompted the State Department to implement a number of important steps towards more deeply embedding diversity across the institution:

  • Creating the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI)
  • Appointing the first-ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
  • Appointing Special Representatives for Racial Equity and Justice,
  • Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons, and International
  • Disability Rights
  • Paying State Department interns
  • Incorporating diversity as a core competency (“precept”) for performance evaluations, among other things.

The State Department’s recent actions to promote diversity and inclusion are a welcome improvement. However, significant challenges remain. The biggest question is whether these initiatives have been properly institutionalized within the department to last beyond the next presidential election cycle. Currently, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) reports directly to the Secretary of State, and Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley announced last month (June 2023) that she is stepping down from her position as the inaugural ODI Chief. This reporting structure exposes ODI’s critical work to political winds and potentially jeopardizes any progress that has been made because of changes in leadership. Backsliding on DEI3 would harm the future generations of dedicated public servants who seek to join and contribute to a Department of State that accurately reflects the true diversity of the United States.

The reversal of the modest gains in DEI pose an enduring challenge to U.S. foreign policy by deterring future talent and depriving the institution of the major benefits that come from a more diverse workforce. A lack of diversity encourages groupthink and stagnation that could critically harm the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. This imperative is even more salient given the July 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College which overturned the earlier Grutter v. Bollinger decision (2003) and ruled that the consideration of race in higher
education admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We do not yet fully comprehend the impact that this will have on disadvantaged students’ access to elite universities. Interestingly, however, the Court granted an exception to American military academies. Although this was merely a brief footnote and was not explained in detail, it suggests an understanding that diversity is fundamental to the strength of our national security.

As articulated in the 2022 National Security Strategy, the U.S. finds itself in a world of “strategic competition” which will shape the future of the international order. Leading with its values, the U.S. will prove that democracy is stronger than autocracy. The Strategy admits that the “quality of our democracy at home affects the strength and credibility of our leadership abroad” and points to challenges from within: domestic terrorists, polarization, and information manipulation operations.4 But what does it say about the health of American democracy if its minority populations are systematically disenfranchised, disproportionately imprisoned, and in the worst cases, impunably murdered?

The jarring scenes of police brutality against Black and Brown Americans reverberates around the world and provides fodder for those countries that seek to undermine the U.S.’s credibility abroad. The 2021 meeting between Secretary Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska in which the Chinese delegation accused America of hypocrisy is a case in point. Discrimination is dangerous because it corrodes the U.S.’s ability to lead by the power of its example.

Conversely, in an era of increasing global interconnectedness, progress on DEI will have positive effects not only on the perception of America abroad but also on other democracies worldwide. As one of the world’s largest heterogenous and pluralistic democracies, the U.S. can serve as a model for other nations on how to treat minority populations more equitably and harness our population’s diversity to better address complex challenges.

This collection of essays begins with a historical overview of the connection between American foreign and domestic racial justice as exemplified by civil rights leader Malcolm X.

The second essay is a first person account from a Rangel Fellow who addresses some of the current challenges of retaining diverse talent at the U.S. State Department.

The third is written from the perspective of a close ally, Germany, and demonstrates how the U.S. can be a model for other pluralistic societies.

Each essay argues that the time to fully imbed racial justice into the practice of and vision for foreign policy is now, and future practitioners are demanding action.

1. Walter White, Letter to Secretary Dulles, 17 March 1954, Papers of NAACP, Group II, Box A617, State Department, General, 1952-1954 file, Library of Congress, quoted in Michael Krenn, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department 1945-1969 (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1999), 77.

2. “Executive Order 13985 of January 20, 2021, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, Code of Federal Regulations, 86 (2021): 7009-7013,…

3. DEI: Diversity, equity, and inclusion

4. White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: White House, 2022), 7,…

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Inniss, Korde, Erika Manouselis and Tiaji Sio. “Racial Justice is a National Security Priority: Perspectives from the Next Generation.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 17, 2023.

The Authors