Members of the SRREJ team pose together for a photo, June 6. From left: Ta’Adhmeeka Beamon, Brittany Greer, Jessica Huber, Clare Polke, Special Representative Desirée Cormier Smith, Michael Orona, Sydney Franklin, and Darius Edgerton. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco
By Clare Polke, Darius Edgerton, and Jessica Huber
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” Doubling down on his commitment to racial equity and justice, Biden released Executive Order 14091, “Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” in February of this year.
“Advancing equity is not a one-year project,” Biden said. “It’s a generational commitment.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Desirée Cormier Smith as the Department of State’s first ever special representative for racial equity and justice (SRREJ) in June 2022, to help ensure U.S. foreign policy, processes, and programs advance the human rights of people belonging to marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities, including people of African descent, and to combat systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia around the world. Cormier Smith’s appointment represents the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy and acknowledges the global nature of systemic racism and the harm it causes to democracy, economic development, and peace and stability worldwide.
SRREJ (pronounced ess-rej) is the most recent addition to a team of Department principal officers dedicated to equity.
“It’s really important to know that equity is a means to equality, which is why it’s not appropriate to use the terms interchangeably,” said Cormier Smith. “Equity refers to the specific and proportionate needs of certain communities to reach equality.
The equity principals deeply align with and reinforce each other’s work. This is essential because racism and discrimination against members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities can be compounded by the intersection of identities that are also targets of oppression—women and girls in all their diversity, LGBTQI+ individuals, people with disabilities, and people of every religion.
According to Cormier Smith, the SRREJ team is appropriately housed in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor because racial equity is inseparable from the promotion of inclusive democracy, human rights, and political stability around the world and makes U.S. foreign policy stronger and more effective.
In one short year, SRREJ’s team has undertaken a plethora of bilateral, regional, and multilateral efforts to demonstrate U.S. commitment to combating systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia globally. Cormier Smith and her team have traveled to more than a dozen countries in almost every region in the world within this short time.
This large, new mandate begins with everyday diplomatic engagement such as listening to and conversing directly with communities, including those that are marginalized. There is no one-size-fits-all action for an issue as complex as global racism.
“Our goal should not be to impose our judgments on other countries or lecture when we should be listening,” said Cormier Smith. “Our goal is to talk with and hear from people about what they need and how our embassies in their countries can uplift and support them. We can’t apply a solely American lens on racism to what is a global problem.”
On the multilateral front, Cormier Smith joined the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (PFII) which was co-led by Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Deb Haaland and United States Mission to the United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Cormier Smith also plans to travel to Australia and New Zealand with DOI officials to build on PFII momentum and on Haaland’s successful trip to the region in February 2023.
She also joined the U.S. delegation led by Thomas-Greenfield to the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, where U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan delivered a keynote address on environmental justice. The United States then hosted a joint event with UNESCO, Canada, and Mexico to highlight how the newly-established North American Leaders’ Summit Declaration on Equity and Racial Justice can be a powerful tool in combating anti-Black racism across these three countries.
SRREJ’s team has traveled to Brazil several times in the last six months in support of the revitalization of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality, participating in working groups to address health disparities, violence, and access to justice, education, and memory and culture.
Advancing the rights of members of the Roma community in Europe remains a priority, as the SRREJ team regularly meets with a diverse group of Roma leaders and human rights advocates to amplify Roma culture, language, and heritage while promoting respect for their fundamental human rights. Additionally, the SRREJ team is working with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to ensure Indigenous peoples and people of African descent are meaningfully included in the next Human Dimension Chair’s conference, expected to take place in Warsaw, Poland in October 2023.
Cormier Smith recently visited South Africa to develop partnerships with government and civil society to counter systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. This included amplifying Mission efforts to improve the racial diversity of the H-2A seasonal agricultural workers visa program applicant pool, informally assessed at Post as being more than 95% white, even though whites comprise only an estimated 7.8% of South Africa’s total population. Cormier Smith supported the Mission in highlighting the H-2A program as an example of how U.S.-South Africa partnership can be a powerful tool to address the lasting impact of structural racism on educational, economic, and political opportunities in both our countries.
In Jordan, Cormier Smith met with South Asian migrant workers and predominantly sub-Saharan African refugees who shared their experiences of marginalization; Black Jordanians who cited widespread societal discrimination and underrepresentation in government; and Jordanian educators who claimed economic challenges contributed to intolerant beliefs among some Jordanians.
In November 2022, Cormier Smith participated in the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, leading to a frank and robust discussion of ethnic issues. As a result, the Vietnamese government requested further engagement on bilateral technical assistance to combat discrimination and increase access to opportunities for members of marginalized ethnic groups.
“Because racism is ubiquitous, ever-evolving, and highly specific to each country, the crux of this frontier work lies in institutionalizing racial equity and justice across all bureaus and departments,” said Cormier Smith. “There is not a single current crisis—whether it be economic inequality, climate change, food insecurity, or democratic backsliding—that doesn’t have a different and disproportionate impact on members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities.”
Taking this into account and prioritizing engagement with these communities on policy and programmatic solutions will strengthen the impact of the Department’s work, whether it’s nuclear nonproliferation, public diplomacy, or procurement.
As part of the SRREJ team’s efforts to integrate racial equity into everyday U.S. foreign policy work, team members regularly present training at the Foreign Service Institute, including the ambassadorial and deputy chief of mission seminars. The SRREJ policy team has carried out the secretary’s instruction to the special representative to embed racial equity across foreign policies, foreign assistance, public diplomacy, and processes, and is currently evaluating nearly 30 racial equity and justice strategic frameworks from regional and functional bureaus. A monthly Department-wide SRREJ Community of Practice also convenes officers from around the world to share best practices from Washington and the field.
Cormier Smith says the commitment to dismantling systemic racism in American foreign policy is as personal as it is urgent.
“As a Black American woman who is the descendant of enslaved people, this work is deeply personal to me,” said Cormier Smith. “We are here because of centuries of activism and demands for justice and equality, both within and outside the Department. Let us never forget that we stand here on the shoulders of giants.”
Clare Polke is a public affairs officer for the Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice (SRREJ) team. Darius Edgerton is the senior advisor for external affairs and Jessica Huber is a senior policy advisor for the SRREJ team.