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.

"The FBI says it wants African-American women," I reminded Freeh. "We say we need them, but our actions don't bear that out. We exclude them. Whether we mean to or not, we do."

I stopped talking. Freeh put his pencil down and leaned back in the deep chair. "How would you fix it?" he asked after a moment. He studied me, waiting.

I told him again.

"But do we need more lawyers?" he asked. He was a lawyer. I was a lawyer. We eyed each other.

"No," I said. "But we do need the kinds of people who finish law school. They're survivors, intelligent, tenacious, energetic. Plus they have two skills the Bureau badly needs in its agents: they can speak well and write well."

Freeh thought this over. "What's wrong with making them practice law before they become agents?" he asked.

"Everything," I said. "African-American women who graduate from law school are in demand. Everyone wants them. The Bureau has to grab them early, when they're single and can relocate, when our starting salary [$45,000] is inviting, when the mystique of the FBI is still alluring. Not after they've proved their worth at a law firm and have fat bank accounts and children at the table. When their husbands have career obligations and can't be uprooted to move around the country."

Freeh nodded in agreement. He looked back down at his pad but did not write anything. He seemed deep in thought.

Someone knocked at the door. Freeh's secretary stuck her head in with a message. My time was up. I thanked him and left.

The FBI's recruiting policy did not change.

Since that meeting the Bureau has hired several thousand more agents, the vast majority of them white males, many from police departments and the military, the FBI's traditional breeding grounds. The Bureau doesn't have to spend a dime recruiting such men. They stay forever and make good agents, but they aren't the only resource available.

Throughout my tenure as a recruiting agent I wrote quarterly reports to headquarters urging a change in the hiring policy. I had one last opportunity to discuss it with Freeh, in December of 1998, nine months before I retired. He visited the Birmingham office and asked for comments. I again pointed out the Bureau's abysmal record in hiring black women. This seemed to be news to him. He wrote on his legal pad. I told him how we could correct the situation. He wrote some more.

Nothing changed.

Despite my recommendation, Alethea Pittman was not offered a job by the FBI after her graduation from law school, in 1999. Instead she worked for a while in the court system in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and is now working toward an M.B.A. at the University of Alabama. She will flourish in any career she pursues. I told Pittman that I still wanted her to become an FBI agent, that she had the integrity and the ability to prosper in the Bureau. I apologized for its failure to hire her when she graduated from law school. I urged her to maintain her interest in becoming an agent, and I wished her well. She promised to consider a career in the FBI someday.

In 1999, when I retired, there were 8,183 white male agents, 1,652 white female agents, 544 black male agents, and only 118 black female agents. In that year, after the most extensive recruiting drive in Bureau history, not one African-American woman was hired.