By Tara Campbell
On June 29, to little fanfare, the State Department reinstated the approximately sixty Foreign Service job offers it had abruptly rescinded from Pickering and Rangel Fellows earlier in the month. The Pickering and Rangel programs seek to diversify the U.S. Foreign Service by providing undergraduate and graduate scholarships and Foreign Service jobs to women, minorities and low-income students.
For several of my seventeen years as a professional in international education and admissions, I had the pleasure of working with students and administrators of both of these programs. These fellows are some of the most sought-after applicants for an admissions officer, not only because they are intelligent and committed students, but because of the high level of academic and career support they receive from the fellowship programs before, during and after their degree programs. My admissions counterparts from other schools and I would compete for these students because we saw the good in diversifying both our universities and the Foreign Service.
State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson initially revoked the sixty positions offered to this year’s fellowship graduates based on the erroneous assumption that none of the Foreign Service positions had been guaranteed (the positions are in fact guaranteed—indeed, required—by the terms of the fellowship programs). The sixty job offers were reinstated after lobbying by the congressional and diplomatic communities.
Initially, I considered this a victory. But the more I think about it, the more troublesome this whole episode becomes. While the level of investment these students receive is considerable, it is a fraction of the total budget of the State Department. And yet, it was seen as low-hanging fruit in the current administration’s push to slash State’s budget.
I do not struggle to imagine why.
As I read the initial report of the offers being rescinded, I could almost hear the rumble of skeptical questions behind closed office doors.
“Why should they get special treatment?”
“Why shouldn’t they have to apply the same way as everyone else?”
“Why should we invest in these particular students more than others?”
I can easily imagine these questions because I heard similar grumblings about “reverse racism” in education when I was finishing high school in the late 1980s. A few of my fellow students were not pleased that some of the college scholarships I earned were for students of color, and they did not hesitate to share their opinions with me. No matter that I was graduating second in my class and scored in the 99th percentile in standardized testing; some white colleagues deemed certain investments in my education questionable because they were reserved for students of color.
How quickly we forget our history. But then, this essay isn’t about slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, racial gerrymandering, police brutality, inequity in prison sentencing, or any of those other historical means by which racial and socioeconomic elites have sought to retain their positions.
This is about Rex Tillerson’s counterproductive attempt to throw up a roadblock to the participants’ service after millions of dollars had already been invested in their education. If he or anyone on his staff had given the program an even cursory glance, they would have seen that the fellowships require students to accept employment as Foreign Service Officers after completing their education. Whether this program requirement was overlooked due to insufficient research, or it was intentionally disregarded, Secretary Tillerson’s attempt to renege on contractual obligations to these students is problematic. It is yet another example of how political victories are often sought on the backs of the most historically powerless members of society—women, minorities and the poor.
There could hardly be a more inauspicious message for a young person to hear at the beginning of their career representing the United States of America to the world: If you are a woman, a person of color, or poor, your country will only grudgingly keep its promises to you. Fortunately, these fellows had the benefit of other people with influence to agitate on their behalf. But what if they had had to scrape together the means to hire legal counsel? And what does this augur for the future of the program?
It is exactly because of situations like this that we are still not in a position to forget about slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, racial gerrymandering, police brutality, inequity in prison sentencing, or any of those other historical means by which racial and socioeconomic elites have sought to retain their positions. Indeed, because of the advances we have made, we must guard against the temptation to think that we no longer have to worry about structural inequity in society.
Under the guise of individual liberty through smaller government, the Tillersons of the world hold onto their positions of power by rolling back federally-supported opportunities for women, minorities and low-income citizens. Were it not for federal “interference” of passing and enforcing the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments, political and economic power in this country would have remained solely in the hands of wealthy white men. The forms of exclusion are subtler today, but the urge of those in power to maintain power by halting progress remains the same.
So yes, the reinstatement of these sixty Foreign Service job offers is a victory, but not one we can rest on. Together we must defend the advances we’ve made and continue to fight for a more just, inclusive world. Some seek to preserve an America built by entrenched power on stolen land, to build a moat of wealth around their castles of privilege, and retain control over access to opportunity in this country. Without federal “interference,” their state government chambers, corner offices and boardrooms would be perennially white, perennially affluent, and perennially male. If anyone needs proof that we are not yet past this stage in history, look no further than the committee of thirteen wealthy white men chosen to hash out the ruinous Senate healthcare bill. The fact that this bill is now languishing at a 17% approval rate shows we as a country want a better, more humane society than any closed committee of elites can envision.
To the Tillersons of the world: you may try to keep us out of your castles of power, and tell us to build our own out of the scraps you leave behind. Let this case show that, while we build our own structures, you cannot keep the drawbridge closed forever. And as our realms of success overlap and blend with yours, we will continue to strive toward a future where your children and grandchildren see there is room for all of us here.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer, assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and volunteer with children’s literacy organization 826DC. Prior to writing, she had a seventeen-year career in international education and admissions in Oregon, Austria and DC. Prior publication credits include Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Establishment, Barrelhouse, Masters Review, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, among others. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was released in November 2016, and her collection, Circe’s Bicycle, with be published in fall 2017. Visit her website at www.taracampbell.com.
Rex Tillerson caricature by DonkeyHotey via a Creative Commons license.