In a field long dominated by white men, we was the majority in the room discussing US-China relations and recommending how policy should be carried out. In the process, I realized that black and brown foreign policy professionals provide unique perspectives. Washington needs such fresh views at this crucial moment in diplomacy between the two superpowers.
As the United States and China compete for global leadership, each government tells a story about itself designed to win hearts and minds around the globe. In the American narrative, race relations have always threatened to overshadow its image as a shining “city on a hill.”
Since the nation’s founding, adversaries ranging from the British in the Revolutionary War to the Nazis in World War II to the Soviet Union during the Cold War have exploited American racial tensions at home to undermine its credibility abroad. During the Vietnam War, “Hanoi Hannah” tried to persuade black GIs to defect by pointing out American economic and racial inequalities.
For decades, China has sought to build solidarity with the Global South by comparing Western colonialism, imperialism and racial discrimination to its own suffering during the “century of humiliation”. Mao Zedong hosted black leaders such as WEB Du Bois and even some members of the Black Panthers.
Year after year, China releases its own report documenting racial discrimination in the United States, even as the United States continues to denounce China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs and political dissidents. In 2020, China seized on the George Floyd protests to highlight what it viewed as American hypocrisy: condemning China for suppressing the Hong Kong protests in 2019, but months later cracking down on the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
I was a foreign service officer in Barbados when Floyd’s killing sparked global protests for justice. During that time, black and brown diplomats were encouraged to openly and honestly share the nation’s long struggle with racism and admit that we are a country of contradictions, a home for hypocrisies. We also explained that Americans have always possessed the capacity to change, to right our wrongs, to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
However, to convince the wider world of American greatness, it is important to ensure that our representatives abroad look like people in the United States.
Black and brown Americans are uniquely qualified to represent our country. Many of them grew up in bilingual households, which means the government may spend less time and resources training them in regional studies or language education. Many are engaged in diaspora communities whose deep connections abroad serve as a foreign policy force multiplier. Biden acknowledged this during last year’s US-Africa Summit, where he announced the creation of the Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement.
Most importantly, Black and Brown personal stories reflect America’s history. When I served as a US diplomat in China, I gave presentations to Chinese citizens about my own family history—how my grandparents migrated from Panama to the United States—and the challenges of being Afro-Latino.
The State Department works to recruit and retain people of color to represent the United States abroad – via the Pickering and Rangel programs. USAID similarly offers the Payne Fellowship, and several departments are actively recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic institutions, and other minority-serving schools.
To redouble these efforts, agencies should reach out to young people of color even earlier in their careers. Many high schools and college students are not aware that international careers are an option. Organizations such as the Fulbright Association, the World Affairs Council of America and Diversity Abroad seek to expose young people to the idea of studying abroad.
Agencies and even political campaigns should also work closely with various professional groups to recruit and retain talent—including Black Professionals in International Affairs, the American Mandarin Society, the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia, the Black China Caucus, and the Latinx China Network.
The United States can take advantage of its own diversity—by recognizing it as one of the greatest soft-power tools it can deploy in the global competition of ideas.