The State Department has a systemic diversity problem

Ryan Heath


Mar 16, 2021

Antony Blinken’s State Department is racing to address a 232-year-old problem: the overwhelming and entrenched whiteness of the nation’s oldest government agency.

The department’s 23,000 or so staff may be the global face of America, but they don’t look like America. And the gap is growing, not shrinking, by many metrics.

Though 40 percent of the American population is from a racial or ethnic minority, “only 13 percent of the Department’s Senior Executive Service are people of color,” said Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career diplomat. “It was more diverse in 1986 — literally — than it is now,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the department’s diplomats.

The State Department’s official historians say that minority staff made up 12.5 percent of employees at the end of the 1980s. According to Government Accountability Office figures from 2020, the ratio of African American employees has fallen since 2002. Black women make up 9 percent of staff, down from 13 percent, and just three percent of the Senior Foreign Service is Black. “We’ve disproportionately lost senior foreign service officials that are non-white and non-male,” Rubin said.

The problem is now in focus thanks America’s national racism reckoning and the promises of the Biden administration to run the most diverse American government ever.

Blinken is hitting stages around the world to announce that “diplomacy is back” and moved quickly to create a new departmental Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer role, the sort of problems described to POLITICO by 14 current and former diplomats — including the leaders of several organizations representing the department’s minority staff — are systemic. The roots stretch across both Republican and Democratic administrations and are resistant to quick fixes, said diplomats.

Tensions are growing: The State Department’s long-standing culture of conformity is butting up against the demands of younger staff — those with under 10 years experience make up around half the department’s employees — who expect the department to be more responsive to the values of the world around it.

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) — a co-sponsor of the Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of State Act — calls the diversity gap “a generational crisis in American diplomacy.” He says the fixes must start before the recruitment stage, with paid internships, and extend to greater accountability for managers and anyone found harassing or discriminating against colleagues.

The department’s new leadership says it’s focused on the problem and in for the long haul. “Secretary Blinken has made it 100 percent clear that he is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for our workforce. It’s going to be integrated across the department, and it’s going to help strengthen us, period,” said Jalina Porter, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson.

Porter emphasized that while the new administration is working to make structural changes to the department, it’s also trying to lead by example. Porter, who is Black, and her boss Ned Price, who is openly gay, are themselves breaking new ground in their public-facing roles. "Nine times of out 10, I am the only woman of color in the meeting,” Porter said. “I want to inspire people to look and think outside the box. I make it a point to show up authentically as myself, rather than fit into societal norms.”

'They're going in with Band-Aids'

Some diplomats remain skeptical. “They’re going in with Band-Aids when they need to address root causes,” said one former diplomat.

Think tanks and advocacy groups have lobbed reports at Blinken’s office with their suggestions. Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said that across 40 workshops with diplomats in 2020, the State department’s “debilitating lack of inclusion and diversity” was the top concern shared.

A Truman Center for National Policy report drafted by dozens of mid-career diplomats proposes a data-led approach to improving diversity numbers: measuring under-representation and rigorously reporting efforts to address it.

Data may help define the problem, but there’s no getting away from the personal element: For members of minority groups to rise rapidly in large numbers — it will take either a hiring spree, or for more white men (who make up more than half the department’s senior staff) to miss out on recruitment or promotion.

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who heads the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, who leads Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, support the hiring spree option. They want to see a round of diverse mid-career hires to help balance the numbers.

The pair worked with senior Black diplomats, including the recently confirmed U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to develop diversity recommendations for Blinken, including “an unambiguous commitment that by 2030, employees will resemble the country that they represent. Diversity should be a key consideration in all new appointments,” Verveer and Jenkins wrote to Blinken.

Achieving diplomatic diversity is also a financial and geopolitical numbers game.

America’s new U.N. ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield, said that a diverse staff “gives a sense of moral authority” to every ambassador.

But Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) warned the State Department’s recent high attrition rates are putting American interests at risk. “For the time ever, China has more diplomatic posts around the world than the US. They’re able to surge diplomats,” Murphy said.

High attrition rates are also expensive: the State Department Inspector General has estimated language training costs per diplomat range from $105,000 for Spanish to $480,000 for Chinese and Arabic.

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