African Americans - African americans and the diplomatic corps




The civil rights movement presented the State Department and other government branches not only with the problem of trying to counter America's racist image abroad but also that of dealing with discrimination within their own ranks. Since Reconstruction, most African-American consuls, ministers, and ambassadors had been political appointees posted to black countries. The number of career black foreign service officers and consular officials remained minuscule until the second half of the twentieth century. The State Department, an executive department in a staunchly segregated capital, steadfastly resisted integration. In addition to racial segregation, its institutional culture traditionally relied on eastern elites. The democratization of the State Department through geographic and demographic diversification evolved only gradually. Its racial desegregation occurred chiefly at the initiative of presidential administrations and informal pressure from black leadership.

Civil rights organizations had expressed dissatisfaction with the unrepresentative character of the State Department since the 1940s, but changes were desultory until the early 1960s. The Kennedy White House, seeking to consolidate its gains with the African-American electorate while maintaining a moderate posture on civil rights, looked to Africa for the solution. Well-publicized visits from African heads of state and the appointment of African Americans to diplomatic posts provided the symbolic politics the situation required. The United States would also realize the additional benefit of encouraging ostensibly nonaligned African states to view the West more favorably and limit their contacts with Warsaw Pact states. The State Department remained slow to change, however, and only after criticism of the pace and scope of reform accelerated were significant numbers of African-American diplomatic representatives named to countries outside Africa and the Caribbean.

In line with the perceived need to court newly independent African states and encourage them to maintain close ties with the West, U.S. officials tried to insulate U.S. foreign relations from the repercussions of domestic racism by assisting diplomats from Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions who encountered discrimination while living and traveling in the United States. In the 1950s and early 1960s, negative experiences of foreign envoys chiefly involved the refusal of service to Africans (as well as South Asians and others) in states where segregation was official, the relegation of nonwhites to Jim Crow sections of public facilities, and housing discrimination in states ranging from New York to Virginia.

Initially, the State Department dealt with the problem by attempting to isolate foreign blacks from African Americans, a task facilitated by the nature of diplomatic relations. Nonwhite envoys could, for example, simply be exempted from segregation laws by virtue of their status. Federal officials could intervene in particular cases, but they were not always present when visitors experienced embarrassments. When the Ghanaian finance minister was denied service at a Delaware restaurant in 1957, Eisenhower invited him to breakfast at the White House, and Vice President Richard Nixon sent him a formal apology. The State Department discussed the matter with the restaurant's franchisee. The most serious incident was the beating of a Guinean foreign service officer by New York City police officers following a traffic accident. The presence of nonwhite envoys also forced adjustments in the elite social life of Washington. State Department chief of protocol Angier Biddle Duke resigned in 1961 from the prestigious Metropolitan Club because of its refusal to continue extending what had previously been automatic membership to foreign diplomats and its absence of black members.

To be sure, another consideration that drove reform within the diplomatic corps was the awareness that segregation as a whole made a bad impression on foreigners regardless of race. As early as June 1951, the solicitor general of the United States, Philip Perlman, filed an amicus curiae brief in a U.S. Court of Appeals case that involved a Washington, D.C., restaurant's refusal of service to a U.S. citizen on racial grounds. Perlman argued that foreigners judge the United States by their experiences in its capital and that segregation marred the image of American democracy. The solicitor general thus linked the reform of racial policies in the United States to the nation's best interests abroad.

In August 1961 the Kennedy administration created a task force composed of representatives from the White House, State Department, and local state governments to address the problem of racial discrimination. Because of local entrepreneurs' inability to distinguish between Africans and African Americans and favor the former, public facilities along the Washington-Maryland corridor ultimately had to be desegregated for everyone.

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