Fighting for U.S. Values Abroad, Black Diplomats Struggle With Challenges at Home

Protests against racism are shedding light on a silent morale crisis within parts of America’s diplomatic corps.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy illustration

On June 1, an hour after police began tear-gassing protesters outside the White House to clear the way for a photo-op for U.S. President Donald Trump, a top-ranking diplomat sent an email to State Department employees alluding to the police violence and racism that prompted the protests.

On June 1, an hour after police began tear-gassing protesters outside the White House to clear the way for a photo-op for U.S. President Donald Trump, a top-ranking diplomat sent an email to State Department employees alluding to the police violence and racism that prompted the protests.

“This past week, we have seen the difficult images across our country triggered by the horrifying events in Minnesota. As Americans, it is a difficult moment for all of us,” said Stephen Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, in the note, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “To that end, I have encouraged Department leaders across our missions overseas and our bureaus to take some time to open dialogues with their teams and create opportunities to share experiences as we reflect on how these experiences impact our communities and as we strive to represent American values in our work.”

The email was meant to send a message to State Department employees that senior leaders acknowledged the challenges of racial injustice and police brutality in the United States after the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody, in Minnesota on May 25 that ignited worldwide protests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added his own thoughts in an email to employees on June 10—16 days after Floyd’s killing—condemning his death as a “tragedy” and saying the country’s “civic unrest gives us an extraordinary opportunity to tell our story abroad.”

But for some State Department officials, particularly black diplomats and other diplomats of color, these messages fell flat. As a broader swath of Americans reckon with racism in a new way, the signals coming out of Foggy Bottom to America’s diplomatic corps seem to be more of the same: a belated handful of emails to employees from senior officials calling for fresh dialogue, rehashing stale pledges to diversify the U.S. diplomatic corps, and committing to root out prejudice and bias that have plagued the department for decades.

Floyd’s death has laid bare how injustices at home can disarm American diplomats trying to advocate for human rights and rule of law in foreign countries. But it has also resurfaced the painful difficulties African American diplomats face day to day in their jobs advancing U.S. foreign policy.

The nationwide movement that started after Floyd’s death has also highlighted how few diplomats of color, particularly African Americans, reach senior positions within the department.

Out of 189 ambassadors serving overseas today, only three are African American career diplomats, and just four are Hispanic, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy, which in an open letter on Tuesday urged the department to do more to increase its diversity.

Foreign Policy interviewed nearly a dozen current and former African American State Department officials, who described racism they faced in foreign countries, as well as the discrimination and prejudice they experienced within the department and the difficulties of promoting American values abroad at a time when they feel under assault at home.

Many said the fragmented and overdue messages coming from senior department leaders after Floyd’s death is emblematic of a larger, systemic problem within U.S. diplomacy, which long predates Trump. But they are exacerbated by a president who has inflamed divides in the country and emboldened white supremacists with caustic rhetoric, particularly in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville protests, in which an anti-racist protester was killed.

Some of the diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy say they are so dejected by the administration’s response to the latest wave of protests that they are considering quitting the foreign service altogether. Others feel an obligation to stay, out of a sense of patriotism and the urgent need to ensure that minority voices within the department are still part of diplomatic discussions.

“I think that a lot of foreign service officers of color, particularly black officers, are at a point where they’re just fed up,” said one official. “We’re dissatisfied, we feel dehumanized, and I think enough is enough. We’re not only trying to be acknowledged as black human beings who are grieving and traumatized and affected by this … but there is an issue of diversity, recruitment, and retention that they’ve not taken seriously.”

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. (second from right) is pictured with other American and Filipino officials at a military camp in Manila on April 5, 2011. Thomas, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2016 to 2018, said the State Department needs to create more opportunities for nonwhite diplomats to advance through the ranks. JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images

When Desiree Cormier Smith was posted to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico, from 2010 to 2012, she faced challenges in the job her white colleagues didn’t experience. “I had plenty of applicants come up to my window and say, ‘No, I want to talk to a real American,’ or, ‘I want to talk to a real official,’” she recalled from her days issuing nonimmigrant visas at the consulate.

When she crossed the nearby border into the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers grilled her on whether she was smuggling drugs, asked how she learned to speak English so well, and frequently flagged her cars for secondary inspections—something that as a U.S. diplomat and government employee she should’ve been exempted from. It got to the point where she had to carry a special letter from the U.S. consul general, complete with her car make, model, and license plate numbers, to prove to border agents that she was in fact a U.S. diplomat. Even then, unlike her white colleagues, she was accused by border agents of faking her diplomatic passport or papers.

“The harassment I got from CBP was so severe,” recalled Cormier Smith, who has since left the foreign service.

Tianna Spears, another former foreign service officer who is black, recounted in a recent blog post—which has since gone viral within the diplomatic community—her harsh treatment by CBP officers while posted at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from 2018 to 2019. She was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety and ultimately left the department. Black foreign service officers who read the post said it is illustrative of the types of hurdles they face in their jobs that their white counterparts don’t understand or fully appreciate.

Sometimes, the most blatant forms of racism they experienced came from foreign government officials themselves. When then-U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry Thomas Jr. spoke up about Zimbabwe’s prevalent human rights violations in 2017, a Zimbabwean government spokesperson said he and other U.S. critics should go “hang on a banana tree.” Zimbabwean State propaganda outlets previously labeled him an “Uncle Tom” and a “house n***** dressed in a fine suit.”

Black diplomats said they have also faced prejudice and bias from their own colleagues. They relayed experiences that ranged from offensive passing comments to more overt forms of racism. They recounted times they were disciplined for things their white colleagues were not, and being passed over for promotions in favor of less experienced white colleagues. Some recounted that when they brought up these issues with supervisors, their supervisors put the responsibility back on them, tasking them to organize discussions with colleagues or trainings on racial insensitivities in the workplace.

“They’re putting that burden on their black employees, instead of actually spending the resources necessary to deal with it in the proper manner, and that is so unfair,” Cormier Smith said. “To have the added task of trying to educate people on racism and give them solutions on how they can be better is a really heavy and unfair burden.”

These challenges are layered on top of an already emotionally traumatizing year for Americans across the country, including diplomats abroad who feel personal connections to the scenes of police violence and racial injustice at home. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in recent months have coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, which has underscored deep-seated and systemic racial inequalities in the United States: The pandemic has pushed unemployment for black workers far above the national average, and the COVID-19 death rate for black Americans is 2.4 times greater than it is for whites.

“It’s just been one emotional assault after another,” said one black State Department official.

In an email response, a State Department spokeswoman said Pompeo “is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive” State Department. “The men and women of the Department of State, like all institutions and organizations across America, are engaged in hard conversations and discussions in the wake of the killing of George Floyd,” she said. She also referred to State Department policies that prohibit employees from engaging in discriminatory harassment.

“Over the past week, Department bureaus, offices, embassies, and consulates have been having open and honest conversations that make clear that bias and discrimination must continue to be addressed and have no place in the Department of State. Many actions have been underway to achieve this,” the spokesperson added. “The Department’s leadership is listening to the experiences of African Americans in the Department with humility and introspection.”

Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the first African American secretaries of state, at the White House on March 12, 2002 when Rice was national security adviser and Powell was secretary of state.
Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the first African American secretaries of state, at the White House on March 12, 2002 when Rice was national security adviser and Powell was secretary of state.

Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the first two African American secretaries of state, at the White House on March 12, 2002, when Rice was national security advisor and Powell was secretary of state. Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

Current and former diplomats say the State Department has made some strides to shed its historic reputation as an elitist old boy network—“pale, male, and Yale” was at one time a common refrain to describe the foreign service—through hiring initiatives, fellowship programs, diversity training, and more outreach at historically black and historically Hispanic colleges.

Two often-cited examples are the Pickering and Rangel fellowships, funded each year to bring more minorities and Americans from diverse backgrounds into the department. The department has also ramped up training to tackle bias and prejudice in the workplace in recent years, and trendlines point to increasing diversity in the department’s new classes of foreign service officers.

Senior State officials insist the department is improving its record over time. “I am proud that the composition of our State Department workforce also reflects America’s devotion to the principle of equal opportunity. Nearly one-third of our team members are minorities—an all-time high—and 44% are women,” Pompeo wrote in his email to staff on June 10. “We’ll continue to honor the promise of America by providing opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds.”

But additional data shows uneven results.

A February report on State Department diversity from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal watchdog, found the percentage of African Americans in the foreign service increased only from 6 to 7 percent between 2002 and 2018. The percentage of African American women in the department’s overall workforce, including those in the civil service, decreased from 13 to 9 percent during that time period, and within the foreign service it rose from 2 to 3 percent.

The GAO study also found that racial or ethnic minorities in the State Department’s civil service “had statistically significantly lower odds of promotion” than white men.

African Americans at the State Department, 2018

“The Department of State can always do better. We can all do better,” said the State Department spokeswoman. “We will continue to address these longstanding issues not only through policies and programs, but also practices and institutional culture, to recruit, retain, and promote to senior positions a skilled, motivated, and diverse workforce that reflects the values of our nation.”

As in the military, it takes decades for foreign service officers to climb through the ranks to senior posts, meaning that a lack of diversity in a class of foreign service officers 20 years ago will play out in its midlevel and senior ranks today.

Diversity in the senior ranks of the department remains low and has also regressed over time in some ways, State Department data shows. In 2008, black diplomats made up about 8.6 percent of the senior foreign service, the top ranks of the diplomatic corps with senior grades equivalent to generals in the military. The latest State Department data from March shows that 2.8 percent of the senior foreign service identifies as African American, and 1.3 percent as multiracial.

The political appointees Trump has brought in to run the department are also overwhelmingly white men.

Some strides made in past decades, particularly under Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—the first and second African American secretaries of state—stopped short when midlevel and senior nonwhite diplomats left the department in recent years. Some left voluntarily, while others were forced out during an attempt to restructure the department under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

U.S. lawmakers have called for the State Department to undertake more meaningful reforms to address its recruitment and retention issues. Two Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Eliot Engel and Joaquin Castro, wrote in a letter last month that the department “failed to demonstrate any serious effort to address the lack of workforce diversity at the mid-career and senior levels.” When they requested further meetings and information from the department, they said the department refused to cooperate. (The State Department has declined multiple requests for comment on this issue.)

Former senior diplomats say the current divisive political climate fueled by Trump only makes it more difficult to retain a diverse diplomatic corps.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other members of his mostly white and male cabinet at the White House in Washington on July 16, 2019. JABIN BOTSFORD/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“We made painfully slow progress over the three and a half decades I served, but still struggled to be as inclusive and representative as we should have been,” former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns told Foreign Policy. “Now the challenge has become much harder, with a President who divides rather than unites, and is so disdainful of career public service.”

“I can only imagine how hard it is to serve under these circumstances, but I admire those who persist—especially younger officers who are the future of a more diverse and effective Foreign Service,” he added.

Harry Thomas Jr., the former senior African American foreign service officer who faced racist insults from the Zimbabwean government, said the State Department should expand its Pickering and Rangel fellowship programs. He also said the department needed to create more opportunities for nonwhite diplomats to advance through the ranks, particularly in regions where they are underrepresented in the department: bureaus that cover the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. For Thomas, new task forces and internal dialogues on diversity aren’t enough anymore: “You can set up all the kumbaya panels you want. But until you see people of color being given these opportunities … nothing is going to change except band-aids on surfaces.”

Thomas Pickering, a renowned former senior diplomat from whom the Pickering fellowship draws its name, also urged Congress to appropriate funds to expands the program. He acknowledged how difficult it could be for some State Department officials to stay in their jobs at the moment. “This is a tough time. And I recognize it, and telling everybody, ‘Just hang in and everything will be better,’ is not the answer that these people need to hear,” he said.

Still, he encouraged those employees thinking of leaving to stay in the job. “They are essential for the future of the American foreign service, and [if] could they give every consideration to sticking it out … they will be needed.”

The department’s long-standing challenges with diversity were evident in its response to the Floyd protests. In the weeks since his death, as protests garnering tens of thousands of demonstrators gained momentum worldwide, senior leaders in the department did not fully understand the need to issue any public response, multiple officials told Foreign Policy.

Lower-ranking officials, many of whom were diplomats of color who quickly understood the gravity of the protests and potential for political fallout abroad, began pushing up the chain for assistant secretaries of state in regional bureaus and more senior officials to proactively issue statements. Those efforts fell short, two officials said, and at least one assistant secretary of state flatly rejected the idea of issuing a statement, believing it to be a domestic matter.

When embassies asked for guidance from Washington on what statements they could issue to address Floyd’s killing and the international backlash to police violence against black Americans, some embassies were given no direction, instead only referred back to Trump’s Twitter account.

While embassies have agency to issue their own statements without prior approval from Washington, they say they face heightened political risks of doing so under the Trump administration, lest such statements running afoul of sudden shifts in policy or message from an unpredictable president who already appears to view career civil servants with suspicion and disdain. U.S. diplomats have drawn Trump’s ire before, including diplomats drawn into testify in the impeachment scandal. Those who testified received no public words of support from Pompeo.

The pressure for a response was particularly acute for U.S. embassies in Africa, several officials said. Some embassies—including those in Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Kenya, and Uganda—still issued social media posts or statements on their own volition in an effort to make up for the silence from Washington.

Brian Nichols, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, issued a personalized statement tying tragedies in the United States to U.S. commitments on human rights in Zimbabwe that was widely lauded in the diplomatic community. (The assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Tibor Nagy, has not issued any statement.)

Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, sent his email to staff seven days after Floyd’s death, after the wave of international condemnation and protests began coalescing outside the gates of U.S. embassies in foreign capitals. The State Department didn’t send out press guidance with coordinated messages from Washington on the matter until two days later, on June 3, several officials told Foreign Policy—in some cases over a week after embassies had first requested it.

“When you’re working in a country full of black lives, you don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye or hiding under a rock hoping no one comes to find you to point out all the hypocrisy,” said one department official. “The press guidance was a day late and a dollar short.”

Also on June 3, the director-general of the foreign service, Carol Perez, sent an email to staff acknowledging the department’s shortcomings. “Over the past few days I have read powerful employee testimonies—stories of disrespect, exhaustion, and disappointment.”

“These distressing accounts should strengthen our collective resolve; we must do better by our people and by one another,” she wrote. She said that the department had a task force rolling out a strategic plan on diversity and inclusion from 2020 to 2024.

In his email to employees on Wednesday, Pompeo implied he held off on addressing staff until after Floyd’s funeral. “Now, following his burial, it is appropriate to address a set of issues that are currently the topic of much debate in the United States, and, importantly for us, around the world,” he wrote. But he had already commented on the matter in a May 31 Fox News interview. He also issued a public statement on Floyd’s killing only as it related to Chinese propaganda on June 6.

The secretary also reiterated that message in his Wednesday evening email: “We must reject unequivocally the false charges—many of them vile propaganda emanating from China, Iran and other autocracies—questioning America’s credibility in promoting human rights and democracy abroad,” he wrote.

“Yes, the United States is imperfect. We should always be both proud of what we’ve achieved and humble knowing there is more to do,” he added. “Americans recognize deeply that we must always strive toward, in the words of the Constitution, ‘a more perfect union.’”

Many of the officials who spoke to Foreign Policy reacted to these messages with a mixture of anger and disillusionment. Some took issue with the fact that in his note, Biegun focused on his conversations with new classes of Pickering and Rangel fellows. “Senior officials at the State Department love to mention the Pickering and Rangel fellows, they love to drop that in there to indicate how progressive we are on these issues,” said one current State Department official, who is an alumni of one of the fellowships. “Everyone’s tired of that. Every alum that I talk to, the fellows themselves, they say, ‘Don’t just trot us out when you want to make a point work then put us back on the shelf.’”

Others derided Pompeo’s statement, saying it missed the mark and questioning why it took him over two weeks to address employees. “Too little, too late,” said one official.

“I thought that the overall tone and focus was completely out of touch from the reality that Americans and department employees are facing,” said a second.

“It felt like he was more interested in picking a fight with and shifting the blame [to] China than actually addressing the human rights issues here,” the diplomat added. “I’m just beyond embarrassed and disappointed.”

“He didn’t acknowledge that racism is at the center of this, which tells me all I need to know,” said a third diplomat. “We don’t give passes to brutal regimes … elsewhere in the world, even if they say they’re ‘striving.’ Why is this an acceptable excuse for us?”

Across the State Department, diplomats agree that racial injustices at home are a major liability for the United States’ global stature. Floyd’s death and instances of police crackdowns at the ensuing protests sparked an uproar of condemnation from U.N. human rights watchdogs, and close U.S. allies, as well as foreign adversaries that have some of the worst human rights records in the world.

In recent weeks, Washington has found itself at the receiving end of the type of diplomatic signals it usually doles out to authoritarian countries. Australia, for example, opened an investigation into U.S. police violence after two Australian news reporters were bludgeoned live on air outside the White House during the protests on June 1. In the United Kingdom, over 160 members of Parliament petitioned London to stop exporting tear gas and rubber bullets to Washington on human rights grounds.

Many African leaders also weighed in on the violence. “It cannot be right that, in the 21st century, the United States, this great bastion of democracy, continues to grapple with the problem of systemic racism,” wrote Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo.

Behind closed doors, U.S. diplomats quietly concede the recent spate of police violence targeting the black community is sapping America’s already dwindling soft power reserves and making it more difficult for them to call out foreign governments on human rights violations.

“The crux of this issue doesn’t rest with any one administration,” said an official. “Though not the poster child for diversity, this issue is also bigger than the State Department. This is a deeply rooted issue of national security. How are ethnic minorities in other countries supposed to believe that the U.S. stands with them when they’re watching George Floyd’s murder on Twitter?”

Former senior diplomats agreed. “It has to be extraordinarily hard for ambassadors to try to explain what is happening in the United States in the context of human rights and justice, where we had been the voice that people have looked to,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was the seniormost-ranking African American woman in the foreign service when she retired from her post in 2017.

“If I were an ambassador now, what I would be saying to these countries is, ‘This does not represent the America that we had been talking about. This is an aberration, and you should look at the more positive side,’” she added. “Of course they’re going to say, ‘You’re still hypocrites.’ And, I’d probably say in private, ‘You’re right.’”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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