Photo by the State Department

US diplomatic corps still short on diversity, say top former ambassadors

In an op-ed, Thomas J. Pickering and Edward J. Perkins argue that, despite progress, US Foreign Service still too white

Despite diverse ethnic and racial demographics at home, the face the United States projects abroad is still overwhelmingly white and male, according to two of the country’s most illustrious former diplomats.

Writing in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday, former U.S. diplomats Edward J. Perkins and Thomas R. Pickering said that while modest gains have been made in the country's diplomatic corps, which has been historically unrepresentative of U.S. society, they have come too slow and are still insufficient.

“[T]he Foreign Service was an exclusive club: overwhelmingly white, male and Ivy League-educated, filled with stuffed shirts in striped pants attending swanky cocktail parties,” they write about the 1970s, when they both began their careers, and the lack of diversity permeating the diplomatic corps. Pickering’s positions included stints as Ambassador to the United Nations, Jordan and India, while Perkins served as director general of the Foreign Service before serving as Ambassador to Liberia and South Africa.

“More than a decade after the Civil Rights Act, America was still presenting a face to the world that looked more like a restrictive country club than our multiracial country,” they write.

The first African-American Foreign Service Officer (FSO) was Clifton R. Wharton, Sr., who began his post in 1925; three years later, Lucile Atcherson became the first woman.

By 1949, however, the number of African-Americans in the Foreign Service had risen to just five, and progress on the number of positions for them and other minorities, including women and Hispanics, has been slow to come in the decades since.

According to State Department statistics, 82 percent of FSOs are white, 5 percent are Hispanic, and 5.4 percent are African-American. Women make up about 40 percent.

These figures diverge sharply from the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, which show a white population of just over 62 percent, while Latinos and blacks represent 17 percent and 13 percent of the population, respectively. Women comprise just over half the total population. 

“Today, our diplomats are more representative,” the former diplomats write. “But we haven’t made nearly enough progress."

Perkins and Pickering argue that while the lack of diversity in the Foreign Service can be partly chalked up to the “vestiges of discrimination” which have left similar marks on other professions in the country, the diplomatic corps must also ensure active commitment to recruiting

“When the Foreign Service drew upon a narrow swath of the population, most future diplomats already knew people who had represented the country overseas. As part of their upbringings, these young people acquired the mannerisms that would make them at home in the Foreign Service,” they write. “To diversify the diplomatic service, we must recognize that promising young people from less privileged backgrounds do not enjoy these advantages and assurances. They need to know that the Foreign Service welcomes their skills and experiences. They need role models with whom they can identify.”

But if change was slow to reach the Foreign Service, it took even longer at the highest level of U.S. diplomacy. Until Madeleine Albright was appointed Secretary of State in 1997, white men had only held the position. Since then, the roster of the top diplomat for the United States has included Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both African-Americans who served in the George W. Bush administration, and Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State.

The Obama administration has publicly committed to changing the face of its representation at the diplomatic level, not only in general federal government policies targeting more diversity at all levels of the U.S. government, but also at the State Department specifically, under whose aegis the Foreign Service falls.

After becoming Secretary of State, John Kerry said the department was committed to “employ a workforce that, through its word and deed, values diversity.”

A spokesperson reiterated that commitment on Monday, saying the State Department was "fully committed to a diverse foreign service that represents America abroad."

The spokesperson highlighted two outside fellowship programs that target minority candidates for careers in the Foreign Service (and which Perkins and Pickering mention in their op-ed), as well as other recruiting efforts, including those on college campuses. 

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association and union of the Foreign Service, told Al Jazeera that it has made it a priority to encourage the State Department to continue to make progress on its diversity targets. AFSA’s director of communications, Kristen Fernekes, said the forthcoming June issue of The Foreign Service Journal, the AFSA’s monthly publication, will be devoted entirely to highlighting the issue of diversity in the foreign service.

“Diversity does not happen on its own,” wrote Matthew Asada, vice president of AFSA, last fall. “Rather, it takes a conscientious effort to reach out and include people from different backgrounds with diverse perspectives.”

Writing to honor Black History Month in February, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs who is African-American, noted that, clear gains notwithstanding, her profession still had work to do.

“We need to ensure that our diplomatic corps is truly representative of all the people of the United States of America,” she wrote. “Recruitment of diverse, highly qualified candidates remains a priority.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter