Washington, D.C. March 2001

Don't Call Us

Why the FBI isn't hiring black women

Illustration by Gregory Manchess

Alethea Pittman wanted to be an FBI agent. She thought she was well qualified, having just received her law degree—exactly what the Bureau was looking for, according to its recruitment brochures. Diploma in hand, Pittman was ready to be sworn in and collect her badge.

I first spotted Pittman in a host of eager faces in her first-year class at the University of Alabama School of Law, when I was on campus recruiting applicants for the Bureau. I noticed her because she asked a lot of good questions. I kept in touch with her over the next three years when I visited the school, and I came to know her as a hardworking, diligent student of the law, clear-headed, sensible, and eloquent. She is also African-American.

I spent thirty years as an agent in the FBI, and I enjoyed it. I made arrests, did surveillance, handled swat operations and hostage rescues, worked undercover, and was immersed in Cold War intrigues, counterintelligence, and anti-terrorism. My last assignment had brought me to Alethea Pittman.

In 1994 I was chosen by Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, as one of thirty-one agents nationwide to bring the next generation of agents into the Bureau. I became the chief recruiter for the state of Alabama, a job that lasted until my retirement, in 1999. I looked forward to the opportunity, but my enthusiasm turned to frustration as Freeh and his staff at headquarters refused to change policies that were hurting our recruitment of African-American women. Other recruiters shared my dismay. The Bureau began welcoming minorities and women in 1972, after the death of Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had opposed their hiring. In 1994 there were 7,405 white male agents, 1,053 white female agents, and 440 black male agents, but only seventy-nine black female agents.

Freeh had made greater diversity in the ranks one of his goals when he became director, in 1993, but he left the method of accomplishing this to the head of the applicant unit, who, though a veteran agent, had no experience in recruitment at the field level and who believed that candidates should acquire work experience before applying. Prior to 1994 the Bureau had been interested in hiring lawyers as soon as they finished law school. Indeed, that was my path to a badge. But the FBI had turned away from the law schools, telling new J.D.s to go practice law for a while and then come back, perhaps around age thirty.

Recruiters nationwide told the head of the applicant unit that his approach was costing the Bureau dearly in terms of bringing African-American women on board. He would not budge. The FBI could afford to be choosy, he said, and if applicants were sufficiently motivated to become agents, they would get the work experience and then apply. Thus the Bureau was losing out on perhaps the most talented and savvy pool of African-American women in the country. We were forfeiting the game without a fight.

In 1996 I met with Freeh to discuss hiring practices. I described Pittman to him, explaining that she had graduated from college with honors, earned a master's in public administration, and gone on to law school. I pointed out that she had been chosen by his Bureau, from thousands of applicants, to work for a summer as an honors intern at FBI headquarters. I stressed that we should hire her immediately after her graduation from law school.

We were in his office at headquarters, in Washington. Freeh listened and took notes. He bent over a yellow legal pad and wrote longhand in the fishhook style of left-handers. I said, "We're losing them—losing black women like Alethea Pittman if we don't hire them right out of law school, before they're snatched up by Wall Street firms and the best legal houses." He looked up at me and then returned to his pad.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In