House Democrats set sights on making State Department more diverse

People of color make up small percentage of frontline U.S. diplomats around the world

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former diplomat, is trying with his House colleagues to make the State Department more diverse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former diplomat, is trying with his House colleagues to make the State Department more diverse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 30, 2021 at 5:33pm

House Democrats are trying to build momentum around a series of proposals that would direct structural changes to the way the State Department recruits, promotes and retains diplomats and civil servants, all with an eye toward increasing diversity at an institution that is notably unrepresentative of the country’s demographic makeup.

Recent studies by government watchdogs and independent think tanks have shown that Latinos are significantly underrepresented in the U.S. diplomatic workforce, while all persons of color, as well as women, are drastically underrepresented in the senior ranks of the State Department.

As the first Black chairwoman of the House Appropriations State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, Rep. Barbara Lee used her first hearing to examine options for increasing and retaining diversity at the State Department.

“We all know we failed on diversity [and] inclusion,” the California Democrat said at last week’s hearing. “What we are doing and have done for decades is just not working.”

In an effort to tackle the longstanding trope of the Foreign Service being “pale, male and Yale,” several House lawmakers are pushing proposals to open up more pathways for joining the State Department and related foreign affairs agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

These proposals, many of them contained in the House’s fiscal 2021 State Department authorization bill, involve things like requiring that all State Department internships be paid; requiring regular reporting on the department’s demographic makeup; increasing the number of Rangel and Pickering fellowships, which provide financial support to undergraduate and graduate students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups who are interested in joining the Foreign Service; and tying some pay for senior department officials to how well they are increasing diversity in specific program areas.

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At the House hearing last week, Nicholas Burns, a well-known retired senior U.S. diplomat who has conducted focus groups with numerous current and former department officials, said the continued lack of diversity at the department is perceived by those he interviewed as “a cancer that’s eating away at the heart of the State Department and its future.”

There is reason to think that, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, 2021 will be the year some of these legislative proposals get enacted. In addition to the State reauthorization measure, which House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., the committee’s first Black leader, used his first markup to advance earlier this year, several other bills are being circulated.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who is Hispanic and leads the Foreign Affairs International Development subcommittee, filed legislation last December that would order the department to establish certain diversity benchmarks while modifying the Foreign Service performance review process to include concrete support for diversity as a key criteria for promotion.

Another component of Castro’s bill was preemptively enacted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February when he announced the creation of a new position: chief diversity and inclusion officer, reporting directly to the secretary. Castro wants his congressional colleagues to make the position permanent.

Another bill from Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., a senior Black lawmaker who leads the Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee, would create a program to attract mid-level career talent from diverse backgrounds into the Foreign Service.

Lee has also signaled she intends to use Congress’ annual foreign aid spending legislation to provide funding support for increasing diversity at the department.

Latinos underrepresented

A Government Accountability Office report released last year found that from fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2018, the makeup of the State Department’s career workforce stayed largely unchanged, with the percentage of persons of color rising from 28 to 32 percent despite making up roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Roughly one-third of the State Department’s 76,000 global workforce are career diplomats or civil service employees.

While Black and Asian American permanent employees at State make up slightly more than their share of the general U.S. population, only 7 percent of the Foreign Service — the frontline diplomats — are Black despite making up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Latino employees are the most underrepresented, making up just 7.4 percent of the department’s permanent workforce, despite making up 18.5 percent of the U.S. population. And only 44 percent of the department is female.

Although the surface level numbers might suggest that Black foreign policy officials are doing all right in terms of reflecting the U.S. population, studies have found that many of them leave the department early in their careers, frustrated by the discrimination they encounter on the job and with bureaucratic impediments to their ability to advance.

The GAO report found civil service employees of color were 4 percent to 29 percent less likely to be promoted than their white coworkers of equivalent education and experience.

As of one year ago, the Senior Foreign Service — upper level diplomats — was 69 percent male and 90 percent white. Fewer than 3 percent of senior diplomats were Black, a decline from almost 9 percent at the start of the Obama administration. Notably, during the Trump administration just five out of the 189 U.S. ambassadors were Black, the lowest number in decades, according to recent studies by the Council on Foreign Relations.

One well-established tool for increasing racial diversity among the diplomatic corps is the Rangel and Pickering fellowships. And while there is broad bipartisan support for growing the fellowship programs at colleges and universities, experts say department leadership must do more to correct the inaccurate impression inside the halls of Foggy Bottom that these fellows are “affirmative action hires” and hence less qualified than their white peers. The reality is that Pickering and Rangel fellows must pass the same rigorous written and oral exams as traditional hires in order to be admitted into the Foreign Service.

“Many of these fellows eventually choose to leave,” said Abigail Golden-Vazquez, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Latinos and Society Program. “Many of them said peers and seniors treated them as though they jumped the line or were less deserving because they came through a nontraditional channel.”

Harry Thomas, a retired Black career diplomat now at Yale University, told the House hearing more must be done to end the “de facto practice” at State of assigning Black diplomats and civil servants to work on primarily Africa-related issues, and likewise end the practice of assigning Latino and Asian American diplomats to work on Western Hemisphere and Asia issues, respectively

“If you work in only one part, instead of two or three, your opportunities for senior ranks can be limited,” said Thomas, who served as ambassador to Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Even as some diplomats and civil servants of color have found themselves siloed into working in just one region, other former officials have said their racial background caused department leadership to ban them from working on certain sensitive policy areas.

Earlier this month, House Foreign Affairs member Andy Kim, D-N.J., who worked at the State Department during the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter of how hurt he was when the department preemptively informed him he was not allowed to work on Korean Peninsula issues “just because of my last name.”

“I was stunned,” wrote Kim, who is Korean American. “I had previously worked in Afghanistan for State. I had a top secret security clearance. But here was a letter saying we don’t trust you. What confused me more is that I didn’t even apply to work on Korea. The State Dept was proactively telling me they didn’t trust me.”

“Everyone keeps saying our diversity is our strength. That letter from State Dept said otherwise,” he added.