• Diplomatic Diversity Fails (Again and Again) at State Department

    May 8, 2022 // 4 Comments »

    America’s diplomat corps is the latest victim of diversity uber alles. Choosing diplomats for the 21st century is now about the same process as choosing which gummy bear to eat next. But fear not, because the State Department assures us America will have “an inclusive workforce that… represents America’s rich diversity.” At issue is the rigorous entrance exam, which once established a color-blind base line of knowledge among all applicants and was originally instituted to create a merit-based entrance system.

    Until now, becoming an American diplomat started with passing a written test of geography, history, basic economics, and political science, the idea being it was probably good our diplomats knew something of all that. The problem was that racially things never quite added up; no matter what changes were made to the test or even if it was administered after an applicant had served two internships with State (below), blacks and other colors of persons could not pass in the right magic numbers. The answer? State has now simply done away with passing the test in favor of a “whole person” evaluation, similar to how many universities and the dead SAT gateway currently work.

    The irony is the test was instituted to avoid backroom decisions on color (and religion, education, and peerage.) When America first found itself in need of a real diplomatic corps in the 19th century, there were three qualifications: male, pale, and Yale. The Rogers Act of 1924 was the first attempt to even out the playing field, instituting a difficult written examination everyone had to pass. The Rogers Act also created the Board of the Foreign Service and the Board of Examiners to choose candidates in lieu of smoky back room conferences.

    But since the 1924 system never quite broke the hold of the Ivy League, a new law in 1946 Act closed down the Board of the Foreign Service Personnel and created the position of Director General to oversee a more fair system for recruitment and personnel. Yeah, you guessed it, that did not broaden diversity much either, so the present system of testing was rolled into place to fix everything via the Foreign Service Act of 1980. A tough written exam was to be followed by a tougher oral exam, all done blind — no one would know the background of the candidates or their race until the final steps. It did not work, at least in the sense people of color still seemed to lag statistically behind. So more interim steps were added, to include a series of personal essays (the “QEP”) to allow candidates to gain “life points” in addition to their performance on the tests. The written test was still retained as a threshold step. One had to pass it to move on to compete further for a coveted foreign service job.

    More help was on the way. Study guides were created, and flash cards sold online. Test prep courses were started. Outside psychologists were brought in, and test administration was turned over to a private company, all in the name of eliminating biases. None of it worked. Blacks sued the State Department. Women sued the State Department. Hispanics argued they were not treated fairly.  State created a Chief Diversity and Inclusion position. But still in 2013 the Senior Foreign Service, the top jobs at State, was 85 percent white. In 2021 it was 86 percent white. The broader diplomatic corps remained 80 percent white.  State stayed stubbornly undiverse.

    Where nothing else succeeded, State created two fellowships that have been used as vehicles to recruit people of “diverse backgrounds,” who worked out to be overwhelming black. In place are the Thomas Pickering Fellowship (run by HBCU Howard University) and the Charles B. Rangel Fellowship. Both claim entrants take the same entrance exams as anyone else, but omit that they do so after two summer internships with the State Department, plus assigned mentors. Fellows are also identified as such to those administering the oral exam required of all prospective diplomats. Having administered the oral exam myself, I knew I would have to justify to my boss’ boss any move to fail a Fellow before being overruled by her anyway. The programs increased the number of unwhite diplomats, as they were intended to do as a separate but equal pathway.

    The problems came down the road, when black diplomats encountered the same promotion and evaluation system their white, green, and blue colleagues did. Diversity in the senior ranks of the State Department actually regressed over time. In 2008, black diplomats made up about 8.6 percent of the top ranks of the diplomatic corps. By 2020 only 2.8 percent of the same top ranks are black. The answer? It must be more racism (characterized diplomatically as “institutional barriers.”) Suggestions focused on offering blacks more fellowships to create a bigger pool, and creating special opportunities for blacks to snag better assignments (described as “promote diverse officers’ career development.”) That of course simply repeats the original sin of pushing less-prepared people upward to their point of failure. FYI: the State Department classifies most of its gender and race promotion results and does not generally release them to the public. However, data leaked to the NYT shows that only 80 black diplomats and specialists were promoted in the 2019 fiscal year, about one percent.

    So under Joe Biden, the next step seemed obvious: do away with the threshold examination. Under new rules, everyone who takes the test goes on to the next stage, no matter if they do well, or poorly (formerly known as “failing.”) State has taken its hiring process full-circle, when again behind closed doors someone decides who moves forward based on race. State will thus absolutely ensure the right blend of flavors get through. So not the best of the best, but the best in each racial bucket, will pass. While a university has four years to try and educate or drop an unqualified candidate wrongly admitted, State will live with the mistakes these unqualified applicants make globally. As will America. Good luck everybody!

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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State