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A Reckoning With Race to Ensure Diversity for America’s Face Abroad


WASHINGTON — Tianna Spears dreamed for years of becoming an American diplomat. She quit in January after two, and says she will never return to the State Department, given what she has described as its failure to protect her from racial discrimination — from the United States government — while on the job.

Ms. Spears is black. Her first foreign post, in 2018, was at the American Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, just over the Mexican border from El Paso. Over six months, she said, U.S. border officials pulled her aside about 25 times for extensive questioning and inspections.

She was asked if she was a drug dealer. At one point, she said, she was told to not look a male officer in the eye. The Customs and Border Protection officers questioned whether her diplomatic passport was counterfeit. At times she felt threatened. And her white colleagues, Ms. Spears said, appeared to cross the border easily and without delay.

When she reported the episodes to her supervisors at the consulate, Ms. Spears said she was advised against speaking out and was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

“The message was: ‘You are now in Mexico City — focus on your job and be quiet,’ ” Ms. Spears said in an interview last week.

Officials at Customs and Border Protection in Washington have denied Ms. Spears’s accusations, and said in a statement that it conducted a two-month internal investigation that “found no evidence of misconduct.” In its own statement, the State Department said it took Ms. Spears’s allegations “very seriously.”

The State Department statement also said it was working to “increase the diversity of our work force and foster a more inclusive organization.” But Ms. Spears’s case, first revealed in a blog post that she published last month after the killing of George Floyd, has struck a nerve in the American diplomatic corps.

It illustrated what current and former officials described as a State Department culture of endemic slights and disparaging treatment of employees who are people of color and women, prompting their exodus and whitewashing diversity from the face of the United States abroad.

Last week, the American Embassy in Seoul removed a Black Lives Matter banner that had hung from its building for three days. It had meant to show “our support for the fight against racial injustice and police brutality as we strive to be a more inclusive & just society,” according to the mission’s official Twitter site.

That was followed by the departure of the department’s only African-American assistant secretary of state, who resigned over President Trump’s heavy-handed response against mostly peaceful protests that have demanded greater equality for black people after the deaths of Mr. Floyd and others in cases of police brutality.

“The president’s comments and actions surrounding racial injustice and Black Americans cut sharply against my core values and convictions,” Mary Elizabeth Taylor, a political appointee who oversaw the State Department’s interaction with Congress, wrote in her resignation letter.

That the State Department has long been filled with “pale, male and Yale” diplomats, as the common refrain goes, is well established. What is new is what Uzra Zeya, a former acting assistant secretary of state who is Indian-American, described as an opportunity in “this watershed moment for America” amid a national conversation about eradicating discrimination.

Ms. Zeya, who retired in 2018 after 27 years in the Foreign Service, said that the conversation was long overdue at the State Department, where she and others recounted futile attempts to report bias or appeal adverse career assignments, only to be brushed aside.

In her case, Ms. Zeya said, she was given no official explanation for being blocked from senior leadership assignments after serving as the chargé d’affaires — the No. 2 spot — at the U.S. Embassy in Paris during the Trump and Obama administrations. Instead, she was quietly told that she and another female diplomat, who is African-American, did not pass the “Breitbart test” — a reference to the conservative news site that she understood to mean political loyalty toward Mr. Trump, despite the State Department’s nonpartisan mission.

“I did feel that I didn’t look the part, despite the fact that my performance was beyond reproach and bulletproof,” said Ms. Zeya, who is now chief executive for the nonpartisan Alliance for Peacebuilding.

“It was certainly something I never imagined,” she said. “And the inability of the department to address it was also profoundly disappointing, and gave me no choice in the end but to leave the institution that I had devoted most of my adult life to supporting.”

Promotion rates in the Foreign Service, the elite diplomatic corps, paint an even starker picture.

Data provided to The New York Times show that only 80 black Foreign Service officers and specialists were promoted in the 2019 fiscal year — 1 percent of 8,023 diplomats who competed.

The promotion process is highly competitive and, over all, only 1,496 diplomats were selected, the 2019 data show. That included 108 Hispanics, 106 Asians and 90 people of other minority group. Promotions were given to 549 women. The overwhelming majority of promotions went to white men.

Of 198 ambassadors currently serving in embassies overseas, only three career envoys are black; another four are Hispanic, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.

In a letter to employees this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that department officials were working “diligently to find the best, most committed and broadly diverse talent to deliver excellence in American diplomacy.”

“I am proud that the composition of our State Department work force also reflects America’s devotion to the principle of equal opportunity,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Fellowships and other recruiting programs specifically looking to hire people of color have been underway for years at the State Department. But in some cases, they have also had the unintended effect of adversely singling out its recruits among their peers.

A former diplomat, Kashia Dunner, joined the Foreign Service after winning a Charles B. Rangel diversity fellowship in 2010. During introductory training courses, she said, the award became more of a stigma than an honor as white classmates routinely assumed that the minority students had qualified only because of the fellowship.

“I suddenly felt really ashamed and embarrassed about it,” said Ms. Dunner, who is black.

Later, while serving at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico, she said she was advised against participating in Black History Month events because they would “typecast” her. She also was told that she intimidated others because of her height, race and hair.

Filing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint became a struggle that she believed would make little difference, and otherwise speaking out or pushing back risked damaging her “corridor reputation” — a peer-enforced system with an outsize influence when selecting diplomats for choice assignments.


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