If you’re black and work for the federal government, you were among a small, but very anxious, crowd of election night viewers who watched the results stream in with all the intensity of a football fan who had just bet his house on a bad playoff game. As any chance at an Electoral College victory vanished for Hillary Clinton, disbelief and the bottomless horror of what lurks around the corner quickly set in.
Less than two weeks after the four political horsemen rode in, your greatest fears were confirmed: President-elect Donald Trump, along with gloating congressional Republicans, wasted little time in announcing ambitious plans to further downsize the federal government.
For black folks—particularly black middle-class families that have historically (despite segregation and institutional hostility) relied on public sector jobs as a solid form of professional growth and upward mobility—this latest development might well be viewed as the end of their economic world as they know it. (See the Center for American Progress’ Farah Ahmad’s observations about that.)
We did see this coming. Congressional Republicans in recent years have been escalating longtime efforts to scale back the role, size and impact of the federal government, or what they’ve mordantly drilled into the public brain as “federal government overreach.”
White voters ate that up in droves this year as 2016 became the defining moment for that war. Ironically, only two (and a half, when counting the Maine split) states out of the 20 most dependent on federal funding were not Donald Trump Electoral College pickups. From battle cries for Affordable Care Act repeal to forcing government shutdowns that, politically, never backfired, Republicans spent an entire two terms of the Obama White House railing against the exaggerated “evils” of federal encroachment.
Now enter corporatist Donald Trump, with plans for a full-blown dismantling of everything near and dear to civil servants: reduced benefits and pensions; easy ways to get folks fired; mass federal-hiring freezes; eliminating unions in the agencies; and—the biggest of them all—the fall of the grade-based automatic pay raise.
Bad enough that black federal workers have a hard-enough time facing high levels of racial discrimination and being passed over for promotion (1 in 4 of all federal discrimination complaints are filed by black employees, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). But with black Americans constituting nearly 20 percent of the overall federal workforce (a proportion larger than their population size of 13 percent), slicing up the federal government is sure to have a negatively disproportionate impact on them—and, in a bigger way, thriving black middle-class communities in metropolitan centers like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, which are major hubs of federal agency and contractor commerce.
It won’t just be black federal employees, either: Black professionals and entrepreneurs with small to midsize businesses relying on federal budgets stand to lose a lot, too.
That animus toward federal involvement in, pretty much, anything seems to conveniently fall on racial fault lines. Old-school Confederate sympathizer and former conservative talk show flamethrower Pat Buchanan nastily took a swipe at black federal workers in a 2011 blog titled, “Obama’s Race-Based Spoils System,” in which he accused the president of “impos[ing] affirmative action on the civil service in its senior levels.” He was just setting up the narrative.
It’s not all paradise for black workers, as Buchanan wrongly suggests. Black federal workers struggle for stability and advancement against the odds of racist norms. And when events like government shutdowns, hiring freezes or massive attrition take place, it’s cash-strapped, black public sector workers (compared with their comfortable white peers) who find themselves without a paycheck and under greater pressure to survive.
When compared with employment in a private sector where discriminatory odds are still stacked heavily against black workers, college graduates and potential hires, government jobs are not only “the good jobs” but are widely viewed within the African-American community as the best jobs. They are a relative escape from cruel private sector environments with much fewer protections.
As the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley shows (pdf), blacks are 30 percent “more likely” to join the local, state and federal public sector workforce, translating into more than 20 percent of “all black workers [being] public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of nonblack workers.”