Despite Efforts, the State Department Attracts Relatively Few Minorities


For a six-time ambassador, Terence Todman is decidedly undiplomatic when he discusses the State Department’s efforts to recruit more blacks for the Foreign Service.

“Just putting on your stationery that you are an equal opportunity employer does not make you one,” says Todman, a black former diplomat who retired in 1993. “There is no interest in having minorities.”

Several black Foreign Service officers--some current, some retired--describe a culture of exclusion at an institution described in a two-decade-old government report as a haven for “smug white males.”


It’s a charge the State Department denies emphatically.

The department says it is moving aggressively to lure blacks--and women--into its ranks. But it says it is having difficulty competing with the higher-paying private sector and contending with a bureaucracy that creates long waiting periods between application and actual assignment.

The department has touted Foreign Service careers in minority print media and broadcast outlets. In one recent year, State Department recruiters went to more than 200 schools and professional organizations, reaching 40,000 individuals, half of whom were minorities and women. The department also is offering scholarships to promising minorities and women in return for a 4 1/2-year commitment to the Foreign Service.

At one point, the State Department established a “near pass” category for blacks taking the written examination for entry into the Foreign Service. That meant that if the number of blacks passing the exam did not reach a specified target, some who failed would be allowed to proceed, leapfrogging whites who posted higher, albeit failing, grades.

The gambit had little impact on black membership in the Foreign Service; nearly 90% of “near passers” were eliminated in the oral exam, officials said.

To make the State Department culture more hospitable to blacks and women, the department instituted a “diversity awareness” program for all managers and supervisors. Also, officials say, promotions for blacks come far easier now than before; the number of black males in senior Foreign Service grades is more than double what it was in 1983.

Yet the minority numbers remain low, especially for black males; there are fewer now than there were 13 years ago--142 compared with 160. In 1983, blacks made up just 4.8% of all Foreign Service officers. Today, the number is only fractionally higher: 5.2%. Nationally, blacks make up about 12% of the population.


Efforts to attract women have been far more successful. Over the last 13 years, the net number of women Foreign Service officers has increased by 500, and women now account for 27% of the total, compared with 15% in 1983.

But Todman, among others, believes that when it comes to attracting minorities, the department is just going through the motions.

“Letters are sent, statements are made, but there is no follow-up,” he says.

Ulrich Haynes, another black former Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Algeria, expresses frustration “that we do not have a minority ambassador serving in a major post anywhere in the world.”

The director general of the Foreign Service, Tony Quainton, says money is a major reason why many blacks--and whites as well--shun the Foreign Service.

“People who have money as their first and foremost consideration are not going to come into the department,” says Quainton, who notes that entry-level Foreign Service officer pay--$30,000 to $40,000--is often a third or more less than the pay of some corporations, which are no less eager than the State Department to recruit black talent.

Another drawback, says Quainton, is that cumbersome State Department processes often make prospective officers wait up to two years before actual hiring.

It was not until 1961 that the first black Foreign Service officer won an ambassadorship. There have been 31 others since then. Other blacks have accepted ambassadorships as political appointees.

Small, poor African countries have been the destination of the great majority of black Foreign Service ambassadors. Only two have served in NATO countries, and only one each has gone to Asia or the Middle East.

For the last two decades, the State Department has been brought to court by blacks--and women--who allege the system is biased against them.

In 1976, a group of Foreign Service women filed suit, and a U.S. District Court ruled in their favor in 1987. Last spring, as an outgrowth of a 1986 discrimination suit, the State Department agreed to pay $3.8 million to black Foreign Service officers. It also granted retroactive promotions to 17 officers.

Early in the Clinton administration, Clifton Wharton Jr., the son of a black Foreign Service officer, was named the State Department’s second-ranking official. But it soon became apparent that Wharton’s duties were not commensurate with his title. He left the department after nine months.

Meanwhile, the department was pushing diversity on other fronts. On Jan. 11, 1994, then-State Department legal advisor Conrad Harper, who is black, stood before a large gathering of department employees and said, “It simply will not do to walk into a bureau in this place and not find anybody who looks like me. It will not do. Nor will it do to walk into a bureau in this place and find only one person who looks like me.”

The remark astonished some veteran State Department hands, who said it seemed to ignore the legal requirement that merit must be taken into account in personnel decisions.

An official at the embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, cabled: “What is the legal advisor’s position on the Chicago Bulls? That organization does not have too many people who look like me, but as a team, based on merit, not diversity, they play great ball.”

Since Harper’s comments, the State Department appears to have backed off somewhat, perhaps in reaction to court rulings hostile to some aspects of federal affirmative action programs.

The department also must answer a lawsuit by a Foreign Service officer who contends he has systematically been denied advancement because he is a white male.

Richard Moose, who recently stepped down as undersecretary of state for management, said two years ago, “It’s probably fair to say that some white guys have been treated unfairly.”

In a recent memo, outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher asserted that racial and gender preferences will not be tolerated in personnel decisions.

All vacancies, he said, will be filled “without regard to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation or national origin.”

In fact, Christopher’s replacement is a woman: U.N. envoy Madeleine Albright. She awaits Senate confirmation.