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House Panel Hearing To Probe State Department's Lack Of Diversity


The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing today on the lack of diversity at the U.S. State Department. One widespread complaint among minority foreign service officers is harassment by U.S. Customs and Border agents. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In April 2018, Tianna Spears joined the State Department. It held the promise of a fulfilling life ahead of her.

TIANNA SPEARS: I was super excited to start. I had dreams of being a diplomat and living in several places in Latin America.

NORTHAM: Spears' first posting was the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, Texas. The young African American consular officer would often cross into the U.S. to shop or meet friends. She says she was regularly pulled over by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers for secondary inspection. She would show them her diplomatic passport and other official forms of identification.

SPEARS: I was asked if I stole my car. One time, I was even accused of having counterfeit documents, as in my diplomatic passport. I was regularly questioned on if I truly worked at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

NORTHAM: Spears, then 26 years old, says she was pulled over more than 20 times during the six months she worked in Juarez and that the harassment escalated.

SPEARS: One time, I was told not to look at the officer in the eyes when I spoke to him. I was told I needed to look down at the ground. They wanted to make me feel small.

NORTHAM: CBP disputes Spears' allegations, saying video footage contradicts some of her claims. In a statement, the agency says she was pulled over only 12 times, and it was because inconsistencies with her address triggered an automatic second check. Spears stands by her story that she was harassed and intimidated because she's Black. She took her concerns to her superiors at the consulate.

SPEARS: And I was just met with pure denial and gaslighting about how this wasn't racism. This wasn't discrimination. Essentially, you know, it was downplayed and brushed under the rug.

NORTHAM: Spears was transferred to Mexico City, but the experience stayed with her. She was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She left the State Department last October, less than two years after she joined. In May of this year, shortly after the death of George Floyd, Spears wrote about her experiences on her blog.

CHARLES RAY: When I read that, I was just beside myself for a couple of hours, thinking I cannot believe that crap like that is still happening.

NORTHAM: Charles Ray was a longtime foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Ray also says he was hassled at U.S. borders, and he says he just had to suck it up.

RAY: I mean, no one's going to stick their head above their desk and make an issue of it if they value their job, if they feel that the senior leadership doesn't care. And, frankly, my personal opinion is that the senior leadership really does not care.

NORTHAM: A spokesperson tells NPR that the State Department is taking Spears' allegations seriously and that it's in talks with the CBP to improve the experience of diplomats at U.S. borders. But Alonzo Fulgham, a former senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, says progress is slow. He mentors young Black foreign service officers and hopes Spears' blog will help force change.

ALONZO FULGHAM: I do think there's hope with these young people because they're much more informed. They blog, and they talk to each other, and they're impatient. I think that's going to be helpful to getting more people to speak up.

NORTHAM: Fulgham said he wished that was the case when he had to cross U.S. borders.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.


Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.