Argument

How to Do Diversity Reforms Right

Decades of attempts to remodel the State Department haven’t worked—here’s why and how to do better this time.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, on Jan 27.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, on Jan 27. Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images

After long-standing criticisms regarding systemic racism at the State Department reached a fever pitch, the U.S. secretary of state issued a statement lamenting the “small number of blacks in senior positions ‘because’ it is of fundamental importance that the Service represent the cultural and ethnic diversity of our society.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken? No. Former Secretary of State George Shultz in 1986. Numerous secretaries of state before and after Shultz have said variations of these words; yet for decades, the U.S. diplomatic corps has failed to reflect the diversity of the United States.

The State Department is, in many ways in terms of diversity, worse off than it was almost 20 years ago. Black diplomats—past and present—have written about the U.S. State Department’s long history of systemic discrimination as well as their personal experiences of indifference, willful ignorance, and outright abuse. According to a Government Accountability Office study released last year, the State Department is behind other federal agencies in employing historically underrepresented groups, especially at senior levels.

Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, there have been many proposals to address these issues. An organization of retired U.S. ambassadors produced a report with recommendations for how the United States could better “harness the skills and capacities of its diverse population.” Think tanks such as FP21 and the Council on Foreign Relations each had their own proposals, as did former Ambassador Nicholas Burns. Congress has held several hearings on the topic. And like virtually all of his predecessors, Blinken has already vowed to build a State Department that “looks like the country it represents.” But if Blinken and other leaders on the issue of race at the State Department want a blueprint for the future, they will need to take a hard look at why past efforts did not succeed.

The fact is the State Department has 70 years’ worth of internal reports, congressional investigations, and high-level promises of reform. During the Truman and Eisenhower eras of the 1940s and 50s, Reps. Jacob Javitis and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. launched queries into the State Department’s lack of diversity. The Kennedy administration held an August 1961 State Department conference on equal employment opportunity. The conference, which included business leaders, academics, and high-level U.S. diplomats, led to the creation of the short-lived Foreign Affairs Scholar Program in 1963, which was meant to recruit African American students for diplomacy. In the late 1970s, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance created a task force to deal with the lack of Black officers, and the Foreign Service Act of 1980 promised to make a Foreign Service that was more “representative of the American people.”

Yet these initiatives, for all their good intentions, largely failed. Budget cuts and hostile presidents all played a role in limiting the scope of the State Department’s reformation. However, the most significant roadblock has been the bureaucracy itself. Even when external forces such as Congress and the White House tried to bring about change, the bureaucracy proved far too entrenched and committed to maintaining its elitism at all costs. With tens of thousands of employees covering various bureaus, agencies, and U.S. missions spread around the world, the State Department’s bureaucracy is large. And within it is a caste system wedded very much to knowing one’s place. Such a system, designed to keep Black individuals out, never had the incentive nor the drive to really let them or anyone else in. Particularly in the U.S. diplomatic corps, an officer must be promoted or must leave, known as “up or out.” In turn, for many white officers, Black and other officers represented a direct danger to their jobs.

In diplomatic historian Michael Krenn’s book Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-69, he noted that “bureaucratic ideology” made it impossible for Black people to advance. In response to congressional investigations in the 1950s, career officials argued at the time that the “proportionately small number of [Black people] in the Foreign Service is the result of the very few qualified [Black] applicants seeking jobs” rather than the State Department’s admission or retention policies. According to Krenn, Christian Herter, secretary of state from 1959-1961, dismissed the need for more Black diplomats given that many countries, he said, did not want them. He went on to suggest that Black athletes were of greater value for international public relations.

Later in the 1960s, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was likewise confronted with the lack of Black individuals at higher levels of State. After learning how many Black people were relegated to positions like secretaries and messengers, he appointed several white people as messengers and blamed the lack of Black people in the department on inadequate practice and test skills.

Decades later, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s own attempts at encouraging diversity were met with criticisms by several white officers. And President Barack Obama’s diversity efforts were met with lawsuits charging reverse discrimination. Those career State Department officials who did not outright resist used the bureaucracy itself to their advantage by holding so many meetings and writing so many memos that time always ran out for real change. One Black diplomat labeled the exercise as a prime example of the State Department’s remarkable ability to outtalk itself out of making necessary changes.

The bureaucracy—whether for racism, sheer self-preservation, or both—successfully resisted some change but not all of it. During his two years as U.S. ambassador to India in the early 1950s, Chester Bowles pushed State Department leadership to appoint Black diplomats to his post despite the fact that, at the time, Black diplomats were only appointed to five countries dubbed the “[Black] circuit.” In the same era, Edward Dudley, who served as ambassador to Liberia, and George McGhee, an assistant secretary of state, both openly and consistently argued against the assertion that Black diplomats would not be welcomed in other countries. For their efforts in the early 1950s, the State Department accepted more Black officers and appointed them to more countries—although, to be sure, they still faced discrimination at home, abroad, and at their jobs.

Blinken can break from the past 70 years by learning from them. U.S. diplomats are constantly rotating, and diversity is treated often as just one more item on a long agenda. To address this problem, Blinken should work with Congress to establish and fully fund a chief diversity officer. This position should report directly to the secretary and be given a dedicated operational budget and full staff who are centered on action and taking the shortest route through the various processes that spring up. Such a step would minimize the ability of others to block change even when change may threaten perceived perks of the job.

Blinken and his team must also prioritize transparency. The department’s bureaucracy, with its ability to hide behind processes, thrives in secrecy. One way to model better behavior among predominantly white officers who either abuse or permit abuse toward Black officers would be for the department to annul all nondisclosure agreements from settlements reached with victims of discrimination, so that victims are permitted to speak to the public about what they witnessed. The State Department should also consider publishing all 70 years’ worth of assessments—internal and external—on diversity and discrimination in a publicly accessible location. Such transparency would make it harder for the bureaucracy to avoid change.

In 1948, Charles S. Johnson, a professor at historically Black Fisk University, said “race, in short, is more than a domestic issue. It has become the scale on which democracy is being weighed.” That should be a measure of the State Department as well. Racial equality cannot be viewed as a threat to jobs, nor can it be viewed as an ancillary issue to be handled via task force or committee. It is very much a part of the fabric of the United States’ foreign policy and who it is as a nation. What past failures and successes show is that only those within State—not Congress, the president, nor outside groups—will save the State Department. But they need to decide to do it.

Christopher Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a U.S. diplomat between 2011 and 2018 and served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Spain.

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