Since the protests over the killing of George Floyd, the State Department has been rocked by internal debates, Zoom calls and discussions on how to tackle its lack of diversity. It is no secret that the American foreign service has long been dominated by white males.
Most diplomats dismiss this as a regrettable consequence of a difficult examination process or a lack of interest from members of minority groups. But the State Department’s failure to attract black applicants is not by chance. It is by design. U.S. diplomats today inherit a racist system that was designed to keep African-Americans out.
China, Russia and Iran are exploiting the killing of Mr. Floyd for their own benefit, but we cannot fight their hypocrisy with our own hypocrisy or simplistic social media campaigns. American diplomats must decide whether they will remain wedded to the racially discriminatory ways of their predecessors or reimagine the State Department to better represent the United States.
The State Department at its inception was a place for only the politically connected. That was supposed to change with the passage of the Foreign Service Act of 1924, known as the Rogers Act, which created a merit-based U.S. diplomatic corps that required passage of both a written and an oral examination for entry.
A year later, in 1925, when Clifton R. Wharton became the first black person to enter the Foreign Service, the reaction was not one of celebration but of anger. Joseph Grew, the chairman of the Foreign Service Personnel Board and its executive committee, was incensed and ensured that the oral part of the exam was used to bar black admission. After Mr. Wharton, no black person would be allowed to join the Foreign Service for more than 20 years.
As the civil rights movement started in the 1950s, pressure mounted and the State Department turned to the security clearance process to bar blacks from the Foreign Service, claiming that many had been members of “subversive” organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P. As Michael Krenn, a historian of the U.S. diplomatic service, recounted in “Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-1969,” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles described it as the “problem of colored people getting cleared by the F.B.I.”
Mounting external pressure from various administrations, civil rights organizations and Congress eventually forced the Foreign Service to begin accepting officers of color beginning in the late 1950s, although ever so slightly. Those who did enter were greeted with contempt from their white colleagues for decades to come.
By 1957, the State Department had refused to create an integrated eating space for black officers stationed at the Foreign Service Institute in segregated Virginia. It was only after the continued persistence of Terence Todman, a black diplomat, that the department opted to lease half of the restaurant frequented by white officers, installing a partition to keep the black officers separate from the rest of the establishment.
Progress on racial diversity and equal opportunity remained slow at the State Department. In March 1994, a white officer, stationed as a political counselor in Bolivia, complained in a cable that minority workers at the State Department were “unscrupulous race and ethnic jumpers,” trying to “con” their way to the top.
In a March 1994 editorial in the Foreign Service Journal, the magazine of the American Foreign Service Association, its president, Tex Harris, warned about the efforts by President Bill Clinton’s administration to diversify the State Department: “The AFSA Governing Board is deeply concerned that the department is undertaking pro-diversity actions independent of an agreed-upon diversity program that has been adequately explained. A continuation of these actions can only engender further resistance by Foreign Service officers who feel disadvantaged.”
One of the things that did change, between the early 1990s and 2000s, was the rise of African-American leaders of the State Department: Colin Powell, Susan Rice (an assistant secretary of state) and of course, President Barack Obama. But their presence did not change the paltry percentage of black diplomats.
Even in 2020 the State Department struggles to recruit and retain black officers. The Government Accountability Office recently found that the percentage of African-Americans in the Foreign Service increased only to 7 percent from 6 percent between 2002 and 2018. In the Trump administration, only three out of 189 American ambassadors serving abroad are black.
A pervasive and entrenched system of white supremacy controlling the levers of advancement and promotion at the State Department does not vanish simply because the current crop of white diplomats claim that they will set up task forces and do more to foster diversity and inclusion.
The State Department can demonstrate to its black diplomats — and the world — that this generation of officers will indeed be different.
The department must understand that recruitment means nothing without retention. Former black diplomats have published several accounts recounting their experiences with racism, hostility and apathy on the part of their white supervisors. The department should contact every single black officer who has recently left it, hear their stories and, if necessary, begin investigations into possible misconduct by white officers.
The State Department must also do a better job at familiarizing its diplomats about the history of the United States and its own history as an institution.