The State Department’s diplomats represent America. But do they really represent America?
Their reputation is Yale, pale, and male. During the Trump years, the State Department became even whiter, as diplomats from diverse backgrounds resigned in protest or were forced to leave. At Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing, he promised to make the State Department look “like the country it represents.” Blinken created the position of chief diversity and inclusion officer and appointed Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career foreign service officer, who is Black.
And yet, three years after Blinken made his promise, anger is growing about the lack of progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion in this historically white, male institution. Current and former State Department employees with firsthand knowledge of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion say that the State Department is struggling to retain employees and expand diversity. Several Black diplomats have left the department for the private sector, including Abercrombie-Winstanley, who left last summer. Those who remain say that the office has had scant success. And congressional leaders, meanwhile, are concerned enough that three prominent Black members sent a previously unreported letter to Blinken, calling on him to do more.
“Our offices continue to hear concerns related to discrimination, harassment, and other abuses faced by some employees, including political appointees of color whose reporting lines or available recourse mechanisms may lie outside the scope of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion,” wrote the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks; Representative Barbara Lee; and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford. “We are deeply concerned by these reports.”
“The State Department has, under this administration, done more than it’s ever done. But that’s clearly not enough,” Lee told me. “If you don’t have a government that’s going to require and be intentional about inclusion, you’re going to have a system that maintains, in many respects, white privilege and white supremacy.”
A current diplomat described an “internal system of patronage and kingmaking.” Former diplomat Akunna Cook said on a podcast that the Africa Bureau was more diverse two decades ago, in the George W. Bush administration. Today, the current diplomat said, the Biden administration is putting “a Band-Aid over something that needed plastic surgery.”
Joe Biden’s big talk has crashed into long-running systemic issues in the mostly white foreign policy world. Abercrombie-Winstanley also lacked the high-level administration support needed to steward the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in a way that could bring about changes, according to four internal sources.
“The State Department is the ultimate country club,” Terrell Jermaine Starr, host of the Black Diplomats podcast, told me. “You still have a whole bunch of white men who don’t respect Black intellect and Black expertise until another white person confirms it.”
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 highlighted the deep legacy of racism in America and, in turn, shaped Biden’s team’s thinking on how to remedy systemic racism in hiring and retention.
Experts say that diversity makes for better diplomacy, and ultimately better policy; some lawmakers agree. “Creating a diplomatic corps that reflects the diversity of America is both the right thing to do and necessary for our national security,” Representative Ilhan Omar said in a statement to The New Republic.
Abercrombie-Winstanley served as ambassador to Malta from 2012 to 2016. After leaving her role as ambassador, she returned to the State Department when Blinken tasked her with the onerous job of fixing its diversity problem. “Support was strong from the secretary,” she told me. “We got done an extraordinary amount as compared to what had been done before.” According to Abercrombie-Winstanley, her signature accomplishment was a shift in workplace climate. “There is conversation about what can be done at all levels,” she said.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion made a handful of reforms and released a strategic plan in September 2022. For the first time, deputy assistant secretary jobs were listed internally to widen the applicant pool, an improvement from a previous system that sources said verged on cronyism. The office also led a survey in 2022 to get data on the extent to which employees had experienced harassment, discrimination, and abuse. It worked to change the State Department’s typeface to one that’s more accessible for those who are visually impaired or who have learning disabilities.
Though in theory Abercrombie-Winstanley reported directly to Blinken, she had no authority over the department’s human resources team. Three sources familiar with her office say that the office was under-resourced and short-staffed, and that Abercrombie-Winstanley lacked sustained, direct access to Blinken.
Perhaps it wasn’t the right role for a former ambassador. Several former State Department employees say it would have been better to bring in an expert in HR and government bureaucracy. “Being Black does not make you a diversity expert,” a former State Department employee told me. What’s worse, they added, “I never got the impression that Secretary Blinken or [chief of staff] Suzy George, who in my view were the most powerful people in the building, that they were ever invested in this issue.”
“They were invested in making sure that they presented well and that it looked good. But they were not invested in actually making sure that the systemic changes that needed to happen happen,” the former State Department employee added, explaining that cronyism is a well-known concern. “There was no real outside entity that was engaged to look at the systematic issues with retention, and promotion…. The problem is that the people who are in charge now are beneficiaries of the same system. They’re not going to disrupt it.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley admits that her time as the State Department’s first DEI officer was a struggle. “I will absolutely acknowledge we did not, before I departed, find perfect solutions to every tension in that space,” Abercrombie-Winstanley told me. “So I had my own disappointments, and things took longer than they should have.”
Key lawmakers share those disappointments and have been pushing Biden’s team to do more. In their January 2023 letter to Blinken, the three members of Congress noted that the 2021 State Department authorization bill had mandated “anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training” and in particular “required training for personnel in senior and supervisory positions, as well as for personnel with responsibilities related to the recruitment, promotion, or retention of employees.” They inquired about the status of the training and received no reply.
Just before Juneteenth, Blinken met for a one-hour breakfast that turned into a two-hour conversation with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The secretary and the caucus discussed the Biden administration’s diversity priorities, as well as geopolitics and diplomacy more broadly.
“My only hope is that we could be faster in the action and the accountability for following through on those commitments,” Horsford, the caucus chair, told me. “As the secretary noted in the meeting, it starts with him and blows through the senior management and the diplomatic corps to ensure that it reaches all aspects of the State Department.”
“When we raise things, we don’t just raise them just to raise them. We raise them to promote action,” he added.
Two days earlier, Abercrombie-Winstanley testified to the House about the State Department’s diversity and inclusion policies. Nathaniel Moran, a Republican representative from Texas, grilled the ambassador about accountability measures. He asked if there were any complaints against her, and she declined to comment. In an interview, she also declined to discuss specific cases. Two sources said that the State Department’s inspector general is pursuing an inquiry into Abercrombie-Winstanley’s tenure.
At the same hearing, she came under fire from Republicans, who dismissed the serious challenges the State Department faces. Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida, called the office’s diversity efforts “un-American.”
Many high-level Black State Department employees have departed during the Biden administration. Among them was Jalina Porter, the first African American spokesperson for the State Department, who has since spoken out about these systemic issues.
“Window dressing touted as diversity does not yield a more inclusive foreign policy,” Porter wrote in Foreign Policy. “Currently, Black people who work in foreign policy face some of the same obstacles … [of] more than 50 years ago.”
The Biden administration’s efforts to increase diversity have led to strange moments: Senior leaders speak the language of DEI without dealing with the core concerns of career diplomats. In October, State Department rank and file were mad about the president’s staunch support for Israel’s destructive ground campaign in Gaza, and Blinken’s inner circle held listening sessions. “Several participants made the point that we’ve received from the field, namely that ‘our credibility is shot’ within the region,” adviser Ned Price acknowledged in an internal State Department email viewed by The New Republic. “Were we to do this all over again, there are things that the Administration could/should have done differently at the outset.”
A top appointee provided a video message to Palestinians. “We see you, we grieve with you, and we mourn every loss of innocent life,” said Under Secretary Uzra Zeya, with her hand on her heart.
Zeya had led a Council on Foreign Relations study in 2020 with Jon Finer, before both went into the administration, part of a flurry of reports put out to address systemic racism in the State Department.
One of the biggest issues, according to the Government Accountability Office, is that “State does not have performance measures and has not taken sufficient actions to enhance accountability for its workplace [DEI] goals.” As the GAO’s 2022 report says, “Without ways to measure progress and enhance accountability, State may not achieve its goal of fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace.” Employees express “concerns that managers and supervisors do not face consequences when they fail to uphold [DEI] values and violate equal employment opportunity principles.”
Congressional leaders have witnessed that disconnect. Lee says that when she travels abroad, she doesn’t see enough minority personnel at embassies. “We need faster action, and we need accountability,” she told me. “I don’t think there’s been enough oversight in terms of asking the hard questions.”
One reason for the sluggish pace of reform is that diplomacy is a nonconfrontational business, and the way to get ahead in the State Department is by keeping one’s head down.
As Abercrombie-Winstanley departed last summer, the office posted its first demographic survey. The collection of this data wasn’t new, but its publication was. The department’s lawyers and human resource officers at the Global Talent Management bureau had stonewalled the release of such data, according to a current senior State Department employee. The data set was published as a series of Excel spreadsheets. It was difficult to analyze for a lay reader and got scant media attention.
By some metrics, the State Department is doing well. The department as a whole has 16 percent Black or African American staff, as compared to 13 percent of the U.S. labor force broadly. But once the data is broken down by specific bureaus or roles, the picture is less rosy; foreign service generalists and specialists fall below the nationwide baseline by several points. The Bureau of Legislative Affairs is among the most diverse, with 32 percent Black employees, while the Bureau of Intelligence and Research is 80 percent white, and the Office of the Legal Adviser is 79 percent white. The State Department overall workforce is 7 percent Black women, 3 percent Hispanic women, and 4 percent Asian women. For the senior levels of the executive service and foreign service, the numbers are considerably lower.
“Secretary Blinken’s commitment to diversity is unprecedented,” a State Department spokesman told TNR in a statement citing numerous advances and programs. “The State Department’s approach to [DEI] has been cited by the Chief Diversity Officers Executive Council as a model for other federal agencies…. The Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (S/ODI) has, and continues to receive, strong support from the Secretary, his Chief of Staff Suzy George, and senior leaders from across the Department.”
Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done. Harassment, in particular, is a concern. Two sources familiar with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion explained that there is a gap between the number of people reporting harassment, assault, and bullying and the number of people experiencing it. That’s in part because people don’t trust the processes that exist for reporting harassment. The fear of retaliation is a major concern. “People are afraid to talk,” Starr, the podcaster, told me.
One foreign service officer, Vera Partem, is suing Blinken in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for alleged improper tenure review and denial of due process. Partem believes that she was dismissed in retaliation for speaking out.
Another foreign service officer, Amy Dahm, has for a decade tried to work within the State Department system to deal with a harassment case, to no avail. Now, she is publicly speaking out and named her alleged sexual harasser in a blog post. Dahm is outraged that President Biden named him to an ambassadorial post.
Black diplomats say that the biggest enduring concerns that deter them from rising and succeeding within the State Department are discrimination, harassment, and abuse, sometimes in the form of bullying and sometimes by way of cliquishness that ends up being exclusionary. “The top issue for the workforce is addressing and rooting out this behavior. But it is not one that department leadership has been willing to take ownership and leadership of,” said a State Department employee familiar with the office’s dynamics. “It’s not, you know, the sexy or the easy part of improving diversity and inclusion, but it is what the workforce most wants to see, and what the leadership is least willing to act on. And that’s a huge problem.”
This summer, Blinken attended Abercrombie-Winstanley’s retirement party at the State Department. After her last day, she posted on LinkedIn, “The roadmap is there. Accountability will bring success.” A successor has not yet been named.