Racism in the Nation's Service

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Eric S. Yellin. Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2013. pp. 301. ISBN: 978-1-4696-0720-7.


In his book, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America, Eric Yellin argues that “the goal of Wilsonian discrimination was not just racial separation but the limitation of black people to a controlled and exploitable class of laborers” that limited African American mobility, opportunity and economic stability (p. 2). African Americans gained significant opportunity in federal offices due to the political patronage and partisanship of the Republican dominated late 19th Century. These gains were lost after the Progressive Era ideal of bureaucratic efficiency and the move to replace political cronyism with an expanded merit based civil service system gained popularity and gave southern white supremacists the opportunity to implement segregation in the federal government during the Wilson administration.

Yellin describes how after Reconstruction, the Republican Party maintained an egalitarian ideal regarding African Americans. As white southern Democrats regained control of states and disenfranchised African American citizens, the federal government acted as a point of refuge for many African Americans who were given opportunities to work both in Washington D.C. and around the country in federal positions such as postmasterships. African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington worked within the Republican Party for social mobility of African Americans. Yellin notes that “Black men and women who worked for the government in 1900 were functional members of the state apparatus” due to the political power wielded by African American Republicans and the economic power generated from their employment benefited all African Americans living in Washington (p. 4-6).

Republican egalitarian ideals weakened with the Roosevelt and Taft administrations focus on reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy which led some African Americans to support the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson in the hopes of getting the two parties to compete for black votes. Unfortunately for African American Wilson supporters, once Wilson was in office, he allowed white supremacists to systematically segregate federal offices and eliminate opportunities for African Americans within the federal system. This did not happen immediately, but “the patronage demands of white Democrats, the howls of white supremacists, the needs of a modernizing governmental bureaucracy, and, indeed, the desire of some managers to feel they were being fair were forged into a racial discrimination that needed years to become institutionalized” (p. 115).

While individuals like Archibald Grimke continued to find positions for individuals by working with sympathetic friends who could affect personnel management, the NAACP gained power and membership signifying a trend towards interest group politics as opposed to traditional party politics. Even with these efforts and the political victories of Republicans in the 1920’s, African Americans never recovered from the system of segregation implemented by the Wilson administration because “Discrimination in Washington was never merely another example of southern Jim Crow; it was evidence of the white supremacy at the heart of the nation” (p. 206).


Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

Yellin’s book provides an important perspective regarding segregation and race relations in 20th Century America. Despite a myriad of examples of how well an integrated and egalitarian federal workforce functioned in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, he convincingly reveals how individuals within the Progressive Movement were able to rationalize segregation as a Progressive Era tool for ending perceived chaos and restoring order in the country. Yellin also echoes the argument of Hanchett when he shows how segregation was not inevitable and only came about with a sustained and intense effort of white supremacists determined to force African Americans into a subservient role (or geographic location) in order to further their own interests. An interesting theme Yellin's book shares with Mae Ngai's book, The Lucky Ones, is that both Chinese Americans and African Americans striving for a middle class existence saw the federal government as at least a partial refuge from unfair treatment and racism in American society.

=== Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

In his 2013 work entitled Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America, Eric Yellin explored the ways in which the Wilson Administration implemented policies that effectively segregated white and black government workers. Yellin argued that economics lay at the heart of these policies, contending that this segregation was meant to “limit black people to a controlled and exploitable class of laborers.” Yellin acknowledged that there is no direct evidence explicitly linking President Wilson to any directives behind these racist practices, claiming that it was the men he appointed who were largely responsible for what he termed a “bureaucratized racism.” Far from simply impacting the economic opportunities available to African-American government workers, Yellin asserted that this new racial regime stifled the burgeoning black middle class in Washington D.C. and, on a larger scale, undermined black efforts to claim full citizenship.

    Yellin opened with a brief discussion of the political and economic environment in Washington D.C. prior to the Wilson Administration.  He noted the existence of a politically well-connected and economically thriving “black bourgeoisie,” that “productively collaborated with the state.”  Patronage networks established between African-Americans and the Republican Party during Reconstruction were an essential component to the rise of this black middle class.  Yellin noted that northern Republicans were able to maintain enough of a majority in Congress during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth to prevent southerners from destroying these networks.  In contrast, he highlighted the increasingly racist sentiment in the rest of the country.  He drew upon letters and newspaper articles from areas outside Washington where black government workers were sent to demonstrate that the “racial circumstances in Washington were both strange and visible to Americans elsewhere.”   Yellin asserted that the visibility of this black elite, in terms of political accomplishments and economic status, “set white supremacists to work chopping them down.” 
    Yellin argued that the Taft Administration set much of the groundwork that Wilson built upon to racialize the civil service bureaucracy.  A key component of this was the gradual destruction of the patronage networks that had facilitated the development of a small but influential black middle class in Washington.  Yellin argued that “Wilsonians used progressive critiques of patronage to malign black Republicans as corrupt.”  They viewed black government workers, many tied to these patronage networks, “and the unsegregated capital city as unhealthy.”  The end result, according to Yellin, was that “Wilsonians began to transform clean government into white government.”  
    While the most immediate impact of the racialization of the civil service bureaucracy was felt in the nation’s capital, Yellin asserted that the segregation the Wilson Administration presided over spawned a black resistance and a “national movement.”  Black federal workers participated in slowdowns and refused to adhere to efforts to segregate cafeterias and restrooms in federal buildings.  These efforts, along with protests from white and black civil rights leaders, combined to make the “NAACP into the era’s most prominent rights organization.”
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