When I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1990, I used to joke that all my South Asian-American colleagues and I could fit comfortably at a table for four. With my brownish skin, unruly hair and seriously non-Anglo-Saxon name, I didn’t resemble many foreigners’ vision of an American diplomat: white, male, perhaps with a monocle to finish off the look. While serving at U.S. embassies in Jamaica, Egypt, Syria, Oman or India, I often was taken to be a local—a mix-up I would use as a teaching moment, to explain that anyone, regardless of color or origin, could become an American and aspire to join our diplomatic corps. A young Syrian’s reaction captured the usual outcome of such exchanges: “The fact that you’re an American diplomat is what I love about America.”
The State Department became less of a pale male club under secretaries like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton—who championed diversity and equality as institutional values—and thanks to recruitment programs like the Pickering and Rangel fellowships, which brought hundreds of talented officers from under-represented groups into public service. As of June 2018, Asian-Americans represented 6.8 percent of Foreign Service generalists, slightly above the Asian-American share of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census, while Hispanic (6.0 percent), African-American (5.4 percent) and Native American representation (0.3 percent) lagged at levels well below their share of the population. Our progress on diversity was far from adequate, but for most of my career, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, I could say with confidence that my government was striving to build a diplomatic corps that looked more like America as a whole. As the daughter of Indian-American immigrants proud to be the first member of my family born in the United States, I rose through the State Department’s ranks without perceiving that my ethnicity, gender or religion impeded my career.
That is, until the Trump administration. In 2017, as the media ran out of synonyms for “implosion” in describing Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state, a quieter trend unfolded in parallel: the exclusion of minorities from top leadership positions in the State Department and embassies abroad.
This shift quickly became apparent in the department’s upper ranks. In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their places. In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.