Black Men Are Missing from Washington’s Key Power Centers

July 28, 2021 | By Paul Thornell

About the authors: Paul N.D. Thornell is a principal at Mehlman Consulting and a board member of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Larry Parks is chair of the Potomac Coalition. Kevin Chavers is the former president of Ginnie Mae and former Senate Banking Committee counsel. Dwight Robinson is Former Deputy Secretary of HUD and Retired Senior Vice President, Freddie Mac.

This week marks the six month point for the Biden-Harris administration and the new Senate Democratic majority. One of the least noted but most striking and disappointing features of these power centers in Washington is the nearly complete absence of Black men in top policymaking roles in both the administration and the top staff of the U.S. Senate.

The administration and congressional Democrats have early on done an outstanding job in shaping policies and providing federal resources to redress racial inequality. They should be commended especially for designing programs in the American Rescue Plan that provide resources to the Black community. President Biden seems sincerely committed to redressing systemic racial discrimination by advancing racial equity and inclusion in government and the private sector.

These notable elements of his early presidency make the scarcity of Black men in top positions in the administration so unfortunate and perplexing.

Even a cursory analysis of the Cabinet and senior White House staff reveals very few Black men as the top decision makers on policy matters in the administration. Lloyd Austin as the nation’s first Black secretary of defense is a truly important and potentially transformational appointment. Michael Regan as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is the only other Black man in the Cabinet. Cedric Richmond clearly has influence with President Biden as a senior advisor and head of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and though not typically a policymaking function, Richmond is a vital link with outside stakeholders and a major asset in advancing the administration’s agenda.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Indeed, the country is better for having such accomplished Black women in the room, with Vice President Kamala Harris’s leadership shattering many barriers, along with Susan Rice as the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Marcia Fudge as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.N. ambassador, and Cecelia Rouse as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. And there need to be more Black women in top administration roles even with the strong influence and capability of these leaders.

Still, there are too few Black American men in lead Administration positions in the West Wing, top Cabinet jobs, and beyond. None have been appointed to critical regulatory roles either, in a permanent capacity, such as the Federal Communications Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Securities and Exchange Commission, and other independent agencies. Moreover, it is worth pointing out there are 15 chiefs of staff for Cabinet secretaries—crucial decision-makers in the hiring process. There are no Black men in those positions either.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office last week released its annual report on Senate staff diversity top jobs. He should be commended for leading this unprecedented transparency effort since 2017 and his resolve to accelerate change. However, there are no Black Democratic chiefs of staff. (Republican Sen. Tim Scott has a Black woman as his top staffer.) Except for newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock’s office, there are no Black men as legislative directors or communications directors. None.

Notwithstanding the leading efforts of Sens. Warnock and Cory Booker on voting rights, policing reform, financial inclusion, and other issues, the underrepresentation of Black men in senior roles in the Senate is troubling. There are five Black women in Democratic offices who serve as legislative directors. Stunningly, on committees, there is one Black man who serves as the only Black top staff person on a Senate committee.

So why does this matter? Well, on a host of issues—federal distribution of resources, government contracting, wealth building, community stabilization, upward mobility—it is vital to have Black men and more Black women at the table in top decision-making roles to offer their perspectives based on lived experiences. Moreover, there is also a political benefit for Democrats in having Black men and women in top roles with public visibility to reinforce the critical role played by Blacks in the election of President Biden and a Democratic Senate Majority.

President Biden’s win in the primary and general election is in large part due to the strength of support among Black voters specifically in the South Carolina Democratic primary and the record Black turnout flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  In the general election, Blacks nationally represented 22% of Biden’s vote totals. Also, as 54% of the total Georgia Democratic vote in the Jan. 5, 2021 special election was from Blacks who propelled Sen. Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate, Democratic control of the Senate majority was delivered by the extraordinary Black turnout in Georgia. With 2022 on the horizon and critical Senate seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin along with Georgia in play—the Black vote is critical to Democratic success in these states.

As this half-year point is a constructive time to provide interim report cards, “incomplete” is the most appropriate grade related to the hiring of Black men in the administration and U.S. Senate. There is still time and opportunity to address and correct this problem, but like finishing a class, it requires purposeful effort.  It’s high time that this administration and the U.S. Senate hires Black men—and more Black women—to have more broadly representative talent.