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Government Accountability Office Says State Department Lacks Diversity


Male, Yale and pale - that was the rap on the State Department's Diplomatic Corps. For years, the department has worked to shed that image. But the Government Accountability Office says State is falling short of its diversity goals. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports Black diplomats are pointing to some systemic problems.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Lekisha Gunn will never forget what her supervisor told her as she began her first assignment as a consular officer in Monterrey, Mexico.

LEKISHA GUNN: He says verbatim that - to me - African Americans have a harder time in the Foreign Service. White women - I remember him saying this - have been able to crack the glass ceiling. But Black officers tend to disappear.

KELEMEN: Gunn lasted five years. A native of Alabama, she was brought into the department on a fellowship designed to increase diversity. But she found that personnel decisions work against women of color, and it was getting harder to talk about democracy and justice abroad.

GUNN: I left about a year and a half after Donald Trump was elected. And I just felt that as an African American woman, the current administration was not living up to the ideals that I want to promote in the service.

KELEMEN: Another former diplomat, Chris Richardson, wrote a damning op-ed in The New York Times about the history of discrimination at the State Department.

CHRIS RICHARDSON: I can't tell you how many African American officers, Latino officers I've spoken to who have told me stories of discrimination, stories of weird micro-aggressions that were uninvestigated, that no one really asked about.

KELEMEN: Richardson, an immigration lawyer, says the State Department needs to take a hard look at itself and ask why these officers quit. The State Department set up a task force to work on plans to recruit and retain diverse talent. A spokesperson says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce representative of America's devotion to the principle of equal opportunity. Richardson says that's been the mantra for years, but each decade there are new excuses.

RICHARDSON: In the 1950s, it was, well, we can't have these officers because they don't fit in in the State Department, or they were in the NAACP, and therefore they were in a subversive organization.

KELEMEN: In 1994, a white officer complained in writing about affirmative action, calling minority officers, quote, "race and ethnic jumpers trying to con their way to the top." Former Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley remembers that incident well. She's also been looking into the department's history with racism.

GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Reading about Black envoys in the 1920s going abroad and meeting with presidents and kings and then coming home and not being able to get a hotel room. I mean, we've got a long history of this. But I absolutely believe we are at an inflection point.

KELEMEN: After more than three decades in the Foreign Service, Abercrombie-Winstanley didn't see any opportunity for promotion under the Trump administration, so she retired. Only three embassies are currently led by Black ambassadors. She'd like to see the department change its personnel procedures to reward officers who promote inclusion. After all, that's part of a diplomat's job.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I think most of us grow up drinking a little bit of the Kool-Aid that we have been an exceptional nation, that we have been a force for good, that we are trying to make the world a better place. And we go out in the world talking about democracy, talking about human rights and civil rights and women's rights and everybody's rights.

KELEMEN: And that's harder to do when Black diplomats don't feel valued at home. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.