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State Dept. diversity chief: First Amendment protects diplomat with racist, antisemitic blog
Amb. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, whose job is to promote inclusion in her role as the department’s first DEI officer, will step down from the position this week
In 1977, neo-Nazis planned a march in the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., inadvertently sparking one of the biggest free speech battles in American history.
Should people holding the most vile beliefs imaginable be able to march publicly while espousing those views? That fight ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court. The answer, it turned out, was yes.
Now, nearly half a century later, a similar question is being considered by the top leadership at the U.S. State Department. While representing America as a diplomat, U.S. Foreign Service officer Fritz Berggren operates a racist and antisemitic blog that promotes white nationalism — and like the Jewish community members in Skokie who sought to see the Nazi protest canceled, many Jewish diplomats and their allies want to see Berggren disciplined.
“It is a painful, painful situation to have one among our number who is willing to voice statements as he has made,” the State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, said of Berggren. “But the law is the law, and freedom of speech — the First Amendment — is what governs all of this.”
Berggren remains a Foreign Service officer more than two years after his connection to the website was first revealed. His case has frustrated his fellow diplomats, many of whom want to see Berggren fired for his continued use of hateful language that has been viewed as threatening.
As civil servants, Foreign Service officers cannot be fired without cause, and the due process protections of federal employees mean any termination must clear a high bar. Earlier this month, Ambassador Eric Rubin, the president of the Foreign Service union, said that Berggren’s actions are so egregious that they would warrant his firing.
But in an interview, Abercrombie-Winstanley, whose job is to promote inclusion in her role as the department’s first DEI officer, argued that First Amendment free speech principles are actually what keep Berggren employed. She pointed to that infamous Skokie case as an explanation for why Berggren has not been fired.
“It clearly is not proceeding as most of us would like, or in the way that we would like, or as quickly as we would like, but the law is the law, and there are many, many occasions where it protects not what we as individuals want protected. I mean, there’s a long history of that,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.
Abercrombie-Winstanley remembers the conversations that happened around the Skokie incident. “And [I remember] being told they have the right to do it. That is our nation. We fight to protect that,” she added.
But in Skokie, the protesters were exercising their right to free speech and freedom of assembly in a public space — not seeking continued government employment with no consequences. Berggren’s actions aren’t protected by the First Amendment, but by the 1980 Foreign Service Act.
Abercrombie-Winstanley, a former U.S. ambassador to Malta, will step down on Friday from her position as the State Department’s first diversity chief. In a conversation with Jewish Insider last week, Abercrombie-Winstanley, who is 66, identified what she viewed as her strongest success in the position — compiling detailed demographic data from across the department’s thousands of employees to identify where racial and gender diversity have fallen short — while acknowledging that the Berggren case remains a point of “dissatisfaction” for her.
“You hear my dissatisfaction. You are not going to hear satisfaction from anybody, up and down. You will not. Perhaps gratitude that the laws are there, because they will protect all of us in turn,” she said.
Abercrombie-Winstanley said that in this case, her opinion about Berggren’s conduct is irrelevant to the question of whether he keeps his job or not. Instead, she said it comes down to the lawyers who are not yet willing to dismiss a government employee over his public comments. (Critics have alleged that the State Department hasn’t dismissed Berggren because they fear a public legal fight with Berggren.)
“It is certainly different in the public sector than in the private sector. Your protections on freedom of speech [are] paramount for those who are in the public service space. So all I can say is, I’m not in a position to comment,” she said. “What I think doesn’t matter. It is what the lawyers think, and what the law says. I’m just not expert enough even to just comment on the law.”
She said that the investigation into Berggren’s conduct remains ongoing, but she cannot say whether any disciplinary actions have been taken.
“By law, I can’t comment on it,” said Abercrombie-Winstanley. “All I can say is that it’s terrible.”
Another investigation into antisemitism at the State Department is also ongoing. In 2021, a swastika was carved into a State Department elevator near her office. No culprit was ever identified, and Abercrombie-Winstanley isn’t optimistic that will change.
“My office ran a town hall after the swastika was found to really make sure that we gave voice to the range of employees who were deeply disturbed by it,” she said, adding that the matter was taken “extremely seriously” by department officials. “The investigation continues. It will be very, very difficult to come to the conclusion that I think all of us would like to have.”
A Government Accountability Office report issued in 2020 found that State Department employees from racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts. In order to understand the issue better, Abercrombie-Winstanley created the department’s first demographic baseline report, which was published last week and provides a detailed look at workforce data broken down by race, gender, disability status and rank.
On this issue — unlike the Berggren case — she fought the State Department lawyers, and she won.
“One of the first things that we did when we started this office was to, some might say negotiate, I would say mud-wrestle, with the rest of the building, especially the lawyers, with being able to gather disaggregated data on the workforce,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion does not use the data to set specific goals for how many people of a certain race or gender should be hired, because “that would be against the law,” Abercrombie-Winstanley noted. But the data shows general areas where she thinks the department could be more diverse, such as at higher ranks, where there are fewer women and people of color.
Some of the State Department employees who support Abercrombie-Winstanley’s work argue that she has not fulfilled some of her promises.
“There are some conflicting opinions on how effective the whole effort is,” said one department employee, adding that it appeared to some that she had “made it a box-checking exercise.”
To those who allege she hasn’t accomplished much, Abercrombie-Winstanley suggests she has at least laid the groundwork to begin to change the storied department’s centuries-old culture. (For decades, the department’s workforce was only somewhat jokingly described as “pale, male and Yale.”)
“We didn’t get here in a couple of years, so I think it would be unreasonable of anyone to expect that we have all the solutions within a couple of years,” she said, pointing out some changes the department has already implemented — like posting all open positions publicly, rather than just hiring people via word-of-mouth connections, or putting out more information about religious accommodations so the hundreds of U.S. missions around the world don’t schedule major meetings on Rosh Hashanah or Eid, and other holidays celebrated by religious minorities.
Conservative activists and Republican lawmakers have recently targeted diversity efforts at public universities and attacked private companies for hiring diversity officers. Earlier this month, while testifying at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Abercrombie-Winstanley found herself sparring with congressional Republicans who argue that her job is “mandating division.”
“If you watch that hearing,” Abercrombie-Winstanley told JI, holding a hand over her heart and sighing deeply, “I responded, ‘Look at who’s in front of me.’ The range of political views was up there on that dais. … What they do in government, representing the American people, the Department of State does internationally, representing the American people. And I believe we have a responsibility, I think greater than other government agencies because we are America’s representatives.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley does not pay this criticism any mind. “I’m sure it’s politically incorrect to say it’s a no-brainer,” she said, when asked why she thinks her work is important. “But I’m saying that [this] is a very straightforward, easy to understand position, and one that I think every American will support.”
After joining the Foreign Service in 1985, Abercrombie-Winstanley’s postings included Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jeddah. A native of Cleveland Heights, a Cleveland neighborhood that used to be heavily Jewish, Abercrombie-Winstanley learned Hebrew in her public high school and later studied abroad in Tel Aviv.
“That is what launched me into my international career: studying about Israel, about history, having amazing teachers that inspired my interest in traveling and learning about the Middle East and the world outside of Cleveland, Ohio,” she said.
Abercrombie-Winstanley recalls facing racism and sexism in her own career.
“I am old enough to have been mistaken for the person who makes the coffee, frequently. And I will tell you, I do not know how to make coffee, to this day, on purpose,” she said. “I don’t get mad about it. There’s no point in that, and in the end, you’ve got a mission to do. You want to be successful. You have to overlook slights, or missteps. And that’s good manners anyways.”
She isn’t leaving her position because of any barriers she faced implementing her diversity agenda. Instead, it’s to retire with her husband back in Cleveland.
“I did not anticipate returning to government,” said Abercrombie-Winstanley, who had departed the Foreign Service during the Trump administration.
The State Department has not yet announced her successor, but Abercrombie-Winstanley said they will do so soon.