Jeffrey Sterling and the element of race

Among the many things the media missed concerning the Jeffrey Sterling trial, perhaps the most interesting narrative is that of race.

Race has driven this case from the very beginning, from the day that Sterling, a 1989 Millikin University graduate and CIA operative, was told by a superior at work that they didn’t think a “big black man speaking Farsi” would be able to recruit potential Iranian spies for the U.S.

This case screams race, but not just because Sterling is black. It has more to do with a black man fitting into a white society, then dealing with both worlds turning their backs on him.

In 2013, a group of my students from Millikin worked on a number of stories about Sterling. Following is the start of one of those stories, concerning Sterling and race. After it ends, I’m going to finish where the students left off:

Allyx Davison

Ashley Eiland

En 380 – Studies in Journalism

Millikin University

The image of Jeffrey Sterling never quite fit. Even when he was working for the CIA, it never fit.

One day while sitting in a break room eating his lunch, Sterling was approached by a fellow black colleague. The man looked at Sterling in surprise and asked “What are you doing here?”

“I work here,” was Sterling’s reply.

Sterling was happy to work at the CIA. “The Culinary Institute of America,” he joked, smiling fondly.  Fresh out of Washington University Law School and with a job working as a public defender, Sterling applied for a job with the Agency, and was hired. Sterling now worked for a historically white institution, one where the man in the break room was surprised to see another African American.

He enjoyed his job and spent much of his time traveling to Europe.

“I had to convince people to give up secrets about their country,” said Sterling. He was good at it, too. He thinks it helped that he “didn’t fit the mold of what people expected a CIA officer to look like.” With his shaved head and pierced ears, Sterling definitely did not look like the typical spy mold.

Even after everything that happened, Sterling would join up again in a heartbeat. “I still believe in the organization,” Sterling said. ”Regardless of my history there, I am absolutely proud to have been a part of the CIA.”

After training for years to learn Farsi and become a specialist on Iran and weapons of mass destruction, Sterling was thrilled to finally get to utilize all his training and travel to Iran. Until, during a conversation with a superior, when he learned he had been passed over for a project.

Sterling was floored.

He had spent weeks training for this mission. Why was he being pulled off the project?

His superiors were concerned that he would be unable to operate successfully as “a big black guy speaking Farsi.”                                        

Sterling’s response?

“When did you realize that I was black?”

 And with that, he filed a racial discrimination suit in 2001, the first racial discrimination suit against the CIA. He filed pro-se: on his own.

“If you don’t pick the battle to fight for yourself, you are not going to fight for anything or anyone,” Sterling said, “so what the hell is there, if you can’t stand up for yourself?”

The case didn’t go well. The court stated that “while we think there is merit to this case, it can’t go forward because of national security. This is a burden that Sterling will have to take on behalf of the country.”

Sterling couldn’t believe it. Taking one for the team “was not something I asked for…it was kind of a kick in the gut.”

The last thing he wanted was to be known primarily as an African American instead of just a man. He spent his life avoiding that image.


Building an image

Sterling paints a picture of himself as someone who defied the odds and overcame circumstances. He was the first of his family to go to college. The image Sterling grew up was not the reality he wanted for himself.

When searching for colleges, Sterling stumbled upon Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. His family was not in favor of him attending; they wanted him to choose a historically black university. Sterling, however, just wanted a good education.

“I didn’t give a damn if I was the only black person on campus,” he said.

Arriving on campus in 1985, Sterling already had his college career planned out. Millikin was going to be his way of “opening [himself] up to the world.”

His goal was law school. Sterling was an eager student. During the time Sterling attended Millikin, there was a rise in black organizations on campus. The Black Student Association (formerly “For Souls Only) had returned to the university, and black fraternities and sororities were present.

Sterling spent minimal time with these organizations, choosing to be with his friends and joined the fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. While part of TKE, Sterling was the only black member. He remembers his time in the “Dead Heads” fraternity fondly. He did some charity work with a black organization whose name he couldn’t recall. Beyond that, he had no ties to the African American community at Millikin.

According to a study on the racial identity of African American men by Eric M. Bridges, assimilated people have attempted to join the majority culture and disconnected themselves from their community. The individual may seek to reduce, diminish, and/or reject their heritage. This individual may be overly sensitive when negative images are associated with themselves.

Losing this image

This might help explain Sterling’s reaction when passed over by the CIA. He had excelled without using race as a factor. Now, race was used as a factor against him. And when he fought back, his case was dismissed for national security reasons.

After filing suit, Sterling was unceremoniously dismissed from the CIA.

He only wished he could have been seen as a man beyond his race. “It’s not Jeffrey Sterling: black man. It’s Jeffrey Sterling who happens to be black.”

It’s something he has been fighting for his entire life.

In fact, in the memoirs that Sterling wrote that may never be published because the CIA forbade him to write about his racial discrimination suit, Sterling wrote this about himself:

“ In my memoir (which will most likely never be published) I wrote about feeling like a man without a country (because I didn’t fit in either the African American or White American worlds for various reasons), and that is where I am today.”

When all of this started, well over a decade ago, Sterling reached out to the black community for help.

“I talked with a lot of people,” he said. “I talked to the NAACP, the Rainbow Push Coalition, congressmen, senators, you name it. No one wanted to get involved in this.”

In fact, one person with considerable political influence actually advised Sterling to move to Canada. Of course, he refused. He didn’t think it would come to where it is today.

Today, Sterling waits, just like he has waited for over 13 years. He’s being prosecuted by a black Attorney General and a black President. He’s the focal point of an administration that promised to be the most transparent administration in history and has become one of the least tolerant. The administration’s stance against whistleblowers, it’s breaches of American’s privacy, the non-stop attacks against members of the media who report on government overreach is unequaled in U.S. history.

And it all started with a black man, educated at primarily white schools, who believed that he should be given the same chances to blend in at a primarily white workplace. He stood up for himself and got slapped down. He was told that his suit had merit but he needed to take one for the team. He was not allowed to publish his own story and he was blackballed from finding work in his chosen profession.

He was then accused of giving up an embarrassing government secret (one that has resulted in no harm to individual lives) to a journalist. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for a chance to have his say in a courtroom while the American press concentrates on the government’s obsession with forcing  journalist James Risen to either testify in the trial or go to jail.

Think this case isn’t about race? In America, a story like this could only happen to a black man.


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