Biden Sees Exodus of Black Staffers, Frustration Among Those Who Remain

At least 21 Black staffers have left the White House since late last year or are planning to leave soon. Some of those who remain say it’s no wonder why: They describe a work environment with little support from their superiors and fewer chances for promotion.

The departures have been so pronounced that, according to one current and one former White House official, some Black aides have adopted a term for them: “Blaxit.”

The first big exit came in December, when Kamala Harris’ senior adviser and chief spokesperson Symone Sanders announced she was leaving, ultimately for a gig at MSNBC. Since then, Harris senior aides Tina Flournoy, Ashley Etienne and Vincent Evans, and public engagement head Cedric Richmond have left.

Public engagement aide Carissa Smith, gender policy aide Kalisha Dessources Figures, National Security Council senior director Linda Etim, digital engagement director Cameron Trimble, associate counsel Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo, chief of staff Ron Klain advisers Elizabeth Wilkins and Niyat Mulugheta, press assistant Natalie Austin, National Economic Council aides Joelle Gamble and Connor Maxwell, and presidential personnel aides Danielle Okai, Reggie Greer and Rayshawn Dyson have all departed too. Deputy White House counsel Danielle Conley and Council of Economic Advisers aide Saharra Griffin are among others planning to leave in the coming weeks, according to White House officials.

The exodus has raised concerns among outside observers who push for the diversification of government ranks.

“I have heard about an exodus of Black staffers from the White House — ‘Blaxit’ — and I am concerned,” said Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which tracks government staff diversity numbers. “Black voters accounted for 22 percent of President Biden’s voters in November 2020. It is essential that Black staffers are not only recruited to serve in senior, mid-level and junior White House positions, but are also included in major policy and personnel decisions and have opportunities for advancement.”

A White House official pushed back on those concerns, saying that around 14 percent of current White House staffers identify as Black — in line with national proportions. The official added that the number is expected to increase as more Black staffers are brought on board and that 15 percent of Black staffers have been promoted in the last year.

“The president is incredibly proud to have built what continues to be the most diverse White House staff in history, and he is committed to continuing historic representation for Black staff and all communities,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “This is a normal time for turnover across the board in any administration and Black staff have been promoted at a higher rate than staff who are not diverse.”

A number of staffers who left, moreover, said it was on good terms. Some departures were for graduate school opportunities. Others went to different cabinet departments. Several said they were leaving because of family matters.

But others described a need to refocus in general, having spent years operating in a tense work environment with little time off.

“I worked for both the President and the Vice President during the campaign cycle, and considered the chance to serve the American people in the Biden-Harris White House nothing short of an honor,” said Austin in an email. “I loved my experience on the press team, and left because I wanted a chance to spend more time with family after nearly three years straight of campaigns and government work.”

The reasons for the departures may vary. But the totality of them has not gone unnoticed within the ranks, according to interviews with nine current and former Black White House officials. Three Black staffers who currently work in the White House — and were granted anonymity because of fear of reprisal — said the exodus has hurt morale, compounding problems that exist elsewhere. They described an operation in which mentorship is hard to come by and opportunity to move up the ranks of a tight-knit operation is exceptionally rare.

“We’re here and we’re doing a lot of work but we’re not decision-makers and there’s no real path towards becoming decision-makers,” said one of the current Black White House officials. “There is no real feedback and there’s no clear path to any kind of promotions.”

Biden had pledged upon entering office that his administration “would look like America looks” and include “a full range of talents we have in all our people.” He and his team have subsequently taken steps to create the most diverse administration ever, far beyond his immediate predecessors. He also made history with the ascension of Black women to the positions of vice president, Supreme Court justice and press secretary, and on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, among other posts.

But at lower levels, that pledge has been harder to sustain. While there are several, first-in-history Black leaders of important White House divisions — like Domestic Policy Council head Susan Rice, Council of Economic Advisers director Cecilia Rouse and Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young — none have Black deputies except Conley. Conley is leaving, though she will be replaced by a Black woman, a White House official said.

Some “people have not had the best experiences and a lot of that has to do with the dearth of Black leadership,” said one former White House official, who is Black. “Think about any workplace. Black folks need some person to go to, to strategize and be a mentor, and we just don’t have as many folks who can be mentors to us.”

Several Black staffers pointed to the departure of Richmond as a particularly difficult blow. A second, current Biden White House official described Richmond as a “big brother” and “the voice of those folks” whose departure has left people “a little nervous.” A former Biden official who is Black said Richmond was “a nucleus” for Black staffers, and that there has been no one to fill the void similarly since he left.

“They brought in a ton of Black people generally to start without ever establishing an infrastructure to retain them or help them be successful,” said the third current Black White House official. “If there is no clear infrastructure of how to be successful, you become just as invisible in this space than you would be if you were not in it.”

In interviews, several Black staffers expressed frustration, in part, that deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon hadn’t done more to retain and promote some Black employees — though other officials said such concerns are misplaced. While part of her job entails signing off on promotions of White House staffers, actual decisions around promotions are made at lower levels and federal budgeting has restricted a lot of White House flexibility around human resources decisions. Asked for comment, O’Malley Dillon referred questions to the White House press office.

“I have known Jen O’Malley Dillon since 2007 and she has always been a true advocate for diversity and for Black staff, here at the White House and on the four campaigns we worked on together,” said Jean-Pierre. NSC chief of staff Yohannes Abraham, who has also known O’Malley Dillon for 15 years, said she “is and has long been a strong advocate for the importance of building diverse teams.”

In an interview, Richmond, now a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee, said that the White House had given young Black staffers more responsibility than other administrations and that many of the people leaving were heading into important jobs with higher compensation.

He said that the timing of the numerous recent Black staffer departures is that his former colleagues are leaving for better opportunities. “A lot of people have been at this grind [for a while] and it’s a hard grind” so “a slowing down of the work pace and a better salary becomes more attractive,” he said. “For young African American staffers who can make these types of salaries, it doesn’t just change their plight but their family’s plight.”

Staffers concede that the salaries, which start at $48,000 for an entry-level White House job, has made it difficult to retain Black employees in a city with a high cost of living. “The pay in the White House is not traditionally very good and a lot of Black folks in these roles don’t come from wealthy families,” said the second White House official.

But for some of the disaffected Black current and former staffers, the concerns are not just centered around matters of salary. The continued pandemic has forced aides to continue to have many meetings over Zoom and limit staff socializing events, making it harder to build staff cohesion and keep morale up, staffers say.

Jamal Simmons, Harris’ communications director, downplayed the notion that internal operations had been bumpy, saying that the White House has been “welcoming and enabling of our communications ideas.”

Elsewhere, however, there is frustration over how policy priorities are being communicated. A White House official noted that Biden and Harris have helped provide more support for HBCUs, used executive authorities to increase police accountability and helped Black communities with increased investment and economic opportunity and projects through the infrastructure law. But privately, several staffers said there was a growing sense that some of the major issues important to Black voters and lawmakers have gone either unfulfilled or become less emphasized.

“The issues that are the highest priority for our community are no longer at the forefront of the administration’s priority list,” said the third Black White House official. “When 10 Black people got killed at a grocery store [in Buffalo, N.Y.], it’s business as usual and no one stops to say to you, ‘Are you okay?’”

For some Black staffers still serving the administration, there is also a fear that the exiting of their colleagues will worsen the situation, ensuring that there are even fewer voices there to reflect the perspectives of their community. They believe that the failure to retain those staffers reflects larger political missteps that the White House has made.

“They gave us a mandate to execute on all the things that we promised and not only are we not delivering on that front, but then we’re not also delivering to the staff that came in on the basis of that promise,” said the first of the current White House officials. “People go home to their families or their communities, and what can they point to specifically? They can’t even point to their own experiences as positive.”

Reporting from POLITICO.