Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is probably the most frequent target of criticism among Washington’s foreign policy community, enduring near daily swipes at everything from his leadership style to his businesslike focus on “process” and “efficiency.”
The latest charge against the former ExxonMobil chief is that he is getting rid of black and Latino diplomats in a deliberate effort to wipe out diversity in the foreign service ranks.
The claim originated in a Nov. 24 article in The New York Times: “Diplomats Sound The Alarm As They Are Pushed Out In Droves.” In story about the personnel impacts of Tillerson’s department restructuring, NYT reporter Gardiner Harris wrote that the cuts have fallen particularly hard on minority officers.
“Among those fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American or Latino diplomats, as well as many women, difficult losses in a department that has long struggled with diversity,” he wrote.
Harris did not attribute the “most” claim to any source inside or outside the department, nor did he offer any statistics to support the claim that more than half of State’s top black or Latino diplomats have been shown the door. Instead, he pointed to the single case of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a black career foreign service officer who served as the assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Obama administration.
Even through Greenfield was upset over being asked to retire after a 35-year career with State, she told Harris that she was not “targeted as an African-American” but rather as a “professional.”
Despite the absence of evidence, several media outlets picked up TheNYT report and ran with the insinuation of racial discrimination, pushing the narrative that Tillerson’s restructuring plan includes ousting diplomats of color.
In its pickup of the story on Nov. 25, The Hill repeated TheNYT’s evidence-free assertion that most of State’s minority officers have been fired or forced to retire.
“Aides for Tillerson have also reportedly depleted much of the department’s diversity by firing most of the department’s leading African-American and Latino diplomats,” the Hill report stated.
Newsweek also reported on TheNYT story, choosing to transform the claim about racial targeting into an attention-grabbing headline: “Rex Tillerson Is Making The State Department A Lot More White.”
Sensational headline notwithstanding, the Newsweek report offered no evidence that the State Department’s foreign service ranks are becoming “more white” under Tillerson. Instead, the report makes an unsupported claim that Tillerson’s staff cuts are also “all but ending the drive to diversify the agency.”
In fact, the State Department’s foreign service cadre has long skewed white and male, a reality that secretaries of state have tried to change going back to Colin Powell in the first George W. Bush administration. The percentage of black and Hispanic foreign service officers has actually ticked up slightly under Tillerson’s watch.
In September 2016, black and Hispanic officers made up about 5.4 and 5.8 of foreign service generalists, respectively. As of Sept. 30, 2017, blacks were 5.6 percent and Hispanics 6 percent of all foreign service officers, according to State Department personnel figures.
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