Few blacks serve in top U.S. diplomatic posts

The State Department has fallen short in its efforts to promote African Americans to key frontline diplomatic posts, department officials and diplomats said, despite efforts to increase diversity under two black secretaries of State and a black president.

The State Department has high numbers of black employees overall, and some prominent African Americans in top positions, such as Susan E. Rice, ambassador to the United Nations. But officials said few minorities were climbing to senior frontline posts that wrestle day to day with some of the nation’s most urgent international challenges in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Only one U.S. embassy in Europe is led by a black ambassador, for example.

The situation has stirred concern at the top ranks of the State Department, and officials are searching for new ways to bring African Americans and other minorities into such positions.

“It is essential that we make new progress on our diversity agenda,” Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of State for Europe, said in a recent statement to the European bureau.

State Department data from September -- the most recent available -- show that of the 32 diplomats then heading embassies and other U.S. missions in Europe, only one, John L. Withers, the ambassador to Albania, was black. However, Withers says he will leave that post later this year.

There were no African Americans among the 10 ambassadors or other chiefs of mission in South and Central Asia, or the 18 in the Near East, and only one among the 17 in East Asia.

However, 11 of the 37 missions in Africa were headed by African Americans.

Over the last decade, the department chose 36 black diplomats for embassies in Africa, but only three for embassies in Europe, in smaller countries -- Iceland, Albania and Slovenia.

Overall, African Americans make up about 16.3% of the State Department’s employees, compared with about 12.8% of the U.S. population. But of Foreign Service officers serving overseas, 6.9% are black.

Latinos, Asians and Native Americans are also under-represented compared with their share of the U.S. population.

The shortfall of black diplomats in top embassy jobs has long troubled African American diplomats.

“It’s a concern that many of us have,” said Ruth A. Davis, who oversaw the Foreign Service as director general from 2001 to 2003, and who retired last month. “We would like to change it.”

Nancy Powell, director general of the Foreign Service, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was committed to naming more minorities to top jobs. “The number will be better” after new assignments are made this summer, she said.

The shortfall stems from a combination of factors, officials and diplomats said, including the fact that many young black diplomats have been drawn to African embassies because of personal interest, and because those embassies have been eager to recruit them.

Withers, the departing U.S. ambassador to Albania, said separate career tracks had evolved, keeping African Americans and others out of jobs that serve as close advisors to top U.S. officials -- what he called “whisper in the ear” positions.

Johnny Young, a four-time ambassador who is now retired, said that in the late 1990s, after five assignments in Africa, he sought a post elsewhere. Instead, he said, he was urged to remain in the region.

Eventually, he became ambassador to Bahrain, where he was the only black ambassador in the Middle East, and then, in 2001, was named ambassador to Slovenia.

He said he went to meetings with the European bureau’s top officials and found himself scanning rooms of white faces. He joked to colleagues, “I’m the only fly in this bowl of milk.”

State Department officials have stepped up minority recruiting. But some diplomats said the challenge was getting minorities into the higher-level posts from which ambassadors and their superiors were chosen.

“The intake side of things is not the issue,” said Kenton Keith, a retired Foreign Service officer and former president of the Assn. of Black American Ambassadors. “There’s nobody in the pipeline in the policy ranks.”