The young Latina in tears after an older White diplomat counseled her on being “too vibrant.” Her boss, another older White man, told her to ignore the reproach and keep shining.
The unofficial list of colleagues to avoid because of their perceived hostility to diversity that diplomats quietly share among themselves.
Asian American diplomats who say they face a tougher struggle to get security clearances than their non-Asian peers.
These are just some of the microaggressions, quiet bigotries and structural hurdles that diplomats say ripple under the State Department’s cosmopolitan veneer.
Now, a national reckoning about racial justice is driving calls to create a diplomatic corps that looks more like the country it represents, work that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made a priority. Inside the State Department, where a grassroots push to improve diversity has surged in the last year, many diplomats say this could be the toughest challenge of Blinken’s tenure.
In more than 30 interviews about the culture inside America’s oldest Cabinet agency, diplomats of all races and varying ages, genders and career levels expressed hope about Blinken’s plans — but also frustration, anger, exhaustion and skepticism about current and historical practices at the department, which has faced lawsuits and lawmakers’ questions about racial discrimination since at least the 1940s. These foreign service officers cite an opaque, risk-averse culture hostile to change and driven by personal ties, a system that they say creates hurdles for women and people of color and, decade after decade, produces a disproportionately White, male department in the highest ranks.
Repeatedly, diplomats raised the sense that there is a double standard.
“When average White men got all the jobs, it just looked normal. Nobody ever called out the homogeneous mediocrity hires,” said one Black foreign service officer. “But if you’re a Black man or a woman or a person of color, and you want to rise? You better be s*** hot.”
Blinken told House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks in March that he will measure his success as secretary in part on his ability to lay the foundation for a truly diverse department
In his first step, Blinken announced April 12 that retired Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley will become the department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer. Blinken also plans to release a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, create a D&I Leadership Council and require State’s regional bureaus to designate a deputy assistant secretary to focus on creating more diversity in a department known for its “pale, male and Yale” workforce.
“This problem is as old as the department itself,” Blinken said April 12 about the “alarming lack of diversity at the highest levels of the State Department.”
“It’s systemic,” he said. “It goes much deeper than any one institution or any one administration — and it’s perpetuated by policies, practices and people to this day.” Tackling the problem will “show other countries that we’re practicing what we preach when it comes to working to advance equality and respect here at home.”
State Department officials, foreign service officers, lawmakers and former diplomats say the push for more diversity is a national security imperative. A more equitable America deprives Russia and China of a cudgel they have long used against the US, most recently after the militarized federal response to racial justice protests. Diverse views also create better national security policies, they say, a view reflected in President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
“A department full of White men from the upper middle class and upper class who went to the same six or seven expensive schools in the Northeast come in with one perspective about the world and one perspective about problems,” said Wes Reisser, a deputy director at State and a leader on a new report about transforming the department from the Truman Center, a nationwide group of national security professionals. “That leads to the same kind of answers coming out on the other side, including to the intractable problems, some of which are foreign policy issues we’ve been grappling with unsuccessfully for decades.”
Diplomats who spoke to CNN asked that their names be withheld to speak candidly about their experiences.
Several Black officers spoke about being steered to the Bureau of African Affairs despite deep expertise in other regions.
“That didn’t sit well with me,” said one Black former diplomat. “Hispanic Americans shouldn’t have to serve in Latin America.” After a while, this man decided, “I can’t do this anymore,” and quit.
One diplomat recalled a State Department internship overseas where an employee from another agency told him, in a group setting, that a judge would throw him in jail because Mexican Americans are known for selling drugs. The others there — including the embassy’s equal employment officer, who he would have complained to — laughed.
“It was demoralizing,” said this person, who questioned whether he should join State. Years later, he saw the officer appear in a video about the importance of diversity in the department.
A young Black diplomat recounted her first few weeks at a posting in Africa, where she was told by colleagues, as she entered secure areas with her badge on, that local staff weren’t allowed.
An Asian American diplomat who eventually left the State Department said she “was constantly asked whose wife I was” after arriving at a new post. “They asked me if I was my boss’s wife, this other guy’s wife. These were my colleagues. They could not see someone like me outside of the context of a White man’s wife, they could only see me as someone who didn’t belong.”
Some diplomats worry the diversity push could spark a huge backlash. Most predicted Blinken faces a fierce, if quiet, fight.
“There are people who have been disadvantaged under this system and there were also people in the department who were quite OK with it and benefited from it,” a former ambassador said. “It’s those people who will be fighting tooth and nail against change.”
Some said they expect passive resistance to be Blinken’s bigger challenge.
“My bosses don’t want to talk about this,” said a third diplomat, who tried to have discussions as racial justice protests roiled the US. “Race is so hard. If you really start talking about it — if you acknowledge that in society there is discrimination — then what you’re really acknowledging is that White people got benefits they didn’t deserve.”
Frustration about the State Department’s lack of diversity existed long before President Donald Trump took office but deepened during his tenure, driven by his repeated refusal to condemn White supremacy and his administration’s apparent hostility to diversity and inclusion. Trump canceled some federal training programs, while then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his taxpayer-funded Twitter account to denounce multiculturalism as “not who America is.”
State staff working quietly on inclusion responded by pushing even harder, efforts that caught fire after a Black man named George Floyd died when a White police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Floyd’s death ‘changed the dynamic’
Floyd’s death “changed the dynamic,” said Joey Hood, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Hood said that “instead of 12 people showing up” to meetings, suddenly “it was hundreds.”
Diversity and gender balance aren’t an issue when newly minted foreign service officers file into their A100 orientation class or at lower levels of the department, which reaps the benefits.
Hood recalled an incident in Yemen when the government called the US Embassy about Yemeni Jews who had fled fighting. The embassy had an interest in the villagers’ welfare and wanted to find out more about the conflict. It knew a government minder would be listening and might inhibit people from speaking — so it sent a team that could speak to everyone in the room, fanning out so the minder couldn’t eavesdrop on them all.
Hood spoke to the oldest male villager; a Jewish American diplomat used her Hebrew to speak to the older women; an Arab American diplomat engaged the younger women using Arabic; a non-Jewish diplomat who spoke fluent Hebrew sat with the young men. The Americans brought food, water and religious texts. They left with valuable information.
“Everyone was able to hit a different piece of the demographics,” said Hood. “It’s a tiny example, but it shows you what we’re capable of when we bring a rich diversity to our diplomacy.”
But at higher levels within State, that diversity begins to fall away.
At the end of 2020, more than 74% of foreign service specialists and more than 80% of foreign service generalists were White, according to department data. Men accounted for 58% of the generalists and a full 71% of foreign service specialists.
At the midcareer level, the number of women falls sharply, a drop many attributed to maternity leave policies. Meanwhile, racial and ethnic minorities don’t move through the ranks as quickly as Whites, according to a February 2020 Government Accountability Office report. State’s “up or out” system means that after a certain number of years, if diplomats do not win promotion to a certain level, they are forced to retire.
The GAO report, commissioned by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland, also found that State is less diverse than the rest of the federal government.
Two of the most high-profile efforts to address diversity have become burdened with an unfair stigma, diplomats say.
Pickering and Rangel fellowships, which provide two years of graduate school, internships, mentoring and jobs at State, are meant to increase diversity of all kinds and require participants to meet higher standards than similar programs. But some fellows hide their participation.
“You’d hear, ‘Oh, that’s an affirmative action program, they don’t have to take the exam,’ [from] these people who believed we didn’t deserve as much to be there and were taking a place someone else could fill,” said a midcareer diplomat and former fellow.
One young fellowship recipient said many of her peers are considering leaving the department. “That’s a huge issue with Rangels and Pickerings,” she said. “We understand we have potential and great prospects, but we don’t feel like we have community or recognition. We feel that our horizons might be limited.”
A veteran diplomat said, “This is one of the things that quietly enrages: This program that brings in an extraordinary cohort in fact becomes a burden, but only to the cohort that looks Brown. They have to maintain a higher standard, but still are stigmatized in a way fellows in the other programs aren’t. That is the genius of racism: It can make the best and the brightest — just by the texture of their hair, the color of their skin, the shape of their eye — less than.”
For many reasons, by the time you reach the highest levels of the department, the diversity and gender gap becomes a chasm. Whites make up around 87% of the most senior ranks of the foreign service. Almost 68% of the senior foreign service and nearly 60% of the executive leadership is male. The most recent US census data online puts the non-Hispanic White population at 60% and says women represent 50.8% of the total population.
Blinken’s team is aware of the imbalance, particularly in the department’s most public-facing roles.
“We’re in such a dire position coming into this,” said a senior official who spoke anonymously to discuss the secretary’s diversity plans. Among the corps of about 200 ambassadors, only a handful are diplomats of color and the numbers have generally dropped since President Barack Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, were in office, the official said, adding: “The numbers weren’t good enough then, but we are just in a crisis-level situation now.”
The environment takes a toll, diplomats say.
“I’m exhausted,” a senior foreign service officer said, describing how they work relentlessly to create “a sense of inevitability, so no one can rightly say or speculate I might have been given the job because” of their race. After a pause, they added, “no one should have to endanger their mental health, physical health, so someone else is comfortable that they were given an opportunity.”
This officer said they are always conscious of being a standard bearer. “I am so often the only person who looks like me in the room,” they said, echoing many others CNN spoke to. “I was in five meetings this week and five times I looked around the room and thought, ‘How is this happening?’ “
Here are some possible answers.
Foreign service officers eligible for promotion have their Employee Evaluation Reports for the last five years sent for consideration to a panel that ranks them. If there are 50 spots for promotion, the top 50 people get those spots. The panel, made up of foreign service officers and one outsider, can also recommend other candidates — perhaps a friend or protegé.
“The big problem with EERs is that your name is on them,” said a diplomat overseas.
Panels can see gender and infer race, raising the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias. The diplomat pointed to a 41% jump in the number of women in the Department of Agriculture’s senior executive service in the six years after it adopted blind evaluations.
Getting a certain kind of job ensures your eligibility for positions up the ladder.
“If you’re not getting the assignments that allow you to do necessary things, like manage Americans overseas, you’re not going to get promoted,” the veteran diplomat said, but the assignments process “is almost wholly opaque and allows for manipulation behind the scenes.”
A rare alignment
For the more senior jobs like the deputy chief of mission, or number two spot at an embassy, the regional bureau narrows the field and sends candidates’ names to a committee for a final scrub before sending their choices to the ambassador for the ultimate decision.
“But if most of our ambassadors are White men and they are more comfortable with White men as the deputy chief of mission, that’s who gets the job,” a midcareer diplomat said.
“What you always hear at the end is, ‘We have to hire the best people,’ ” this diplomat said. “That always pisses me off. You’re telling me that since forever, the best people have been White men? How do you make sure more diverse people get those jobs?”
Despite the frustration, many told CNN there are grounds for cautious optimism. Maryum Saifee, a diplomat who used a sabbatical to lead the Truman Center report in her personal capacity, says there is “a rare alignment” in support of Blinken’s efforts. Chris Richardson, a former diplomat who has studied the State Department’s civil rights history, agrees.
“Sometimes you saw outside groups wanting change but State saying no, or the White House wanting change, but nobody else,” Richardson said. “But for the first time in almost 100 years, outside groups, people within State, the White House and Congress all want reform. I’ve never seen it before … that makes me hopeful.”
Blinken will emphasize recruitment, put a “robust” emphasis on retention and keep track of progress, the senior official said, adding that “the entirety of senior leadership will be accountable.”
Diplomats and their backers have ideas too.
Rep. Meeks told CNN he wants to ensure there’s a focus on retention “and not that individuals of color at State are just there as a number, but they’re listened to.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, has written legislation to improve diversity, increase access for employees with disabilities and address issues that LGBTQ employees face.
Some diplomats said they don’t want Blinken to simply increase the number of Pickering or Rangel fellows, with one calling it “the lazy answer.” This person would rather see fewer fellows “and the size of A100 increase, so new fellows don’t feel that pressure and resentment from someone who feels, ‘I’m waiting a year to start at State because of these fellows.’ “
Others suggested the senior executive pay scale, which offers financial incentives for certain achievements, could be tweaked to reward ambassadors who build a more diverse team. Jenna Ben-Yehuda, a former diplomat who now heads the Truman Center, spoke for many when she noted that it is “virtually impossible to find clean, consistent diversity data,” calling it “a critical need.”
Diplomats also said Blinken should think about short-term changes. The senior foreign service officer said the first two years of the secretary’s expected four-year term might be about “paying the piper for campaign volunteers, but the second two years are a great opportunity, as people begin to leave the administration, to identity people of color who can go into that strata of job that makes them viable for future jobs.”
‘They fit the job’
Meanwhile, State Department leaders like Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, her colleague Stacy Williams, chair of the Bureau’s Diversity Council, and Hood of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau continue to develop their own strategies to retain more diverse diplomats and help them rise.
Both bureaus have instituted standardized questions for hiring and laid down an expectation that all diplomatic outposts would start diversity and inclusion councils. Chung and Williams have built programs for retention and professional development at different career levels, from welcoming incoming diplomats to pairing midcareer officers with more senior mentors who can help them navigate the system.
“Recruitment is the easy part,” Chung said. “Retention and promotion to senior levels is still lacking and where we need to put in the work.”
Hood’s bureau surveys diplomats about their lives in Middle Eastern posts to gather data that could convince a more diverse array of candidates to apply for open jobs. He also has more than one person — “ideally from different demographics” — interview applicants, does all interviews by phone and insists they interview all comers.
“I can’t tell you what a revelation that was,” he said. “That wasn’t the culture before. Before, the culture was, ‘I’m just going to interview my friend. They fit the job.’ “