Black federal workers in Washington, D.C., are used to working under Democratic administrations and Republican administrations, all while acknowledging that even if a president’s policies differ from their own, they have a duty to their agencies to keep the government humming along.
But what if the new president is thought to be a racist, who has brought in as his chief adviser Steve Bannon, a white nationalist? Can they work as civil servants under those conditions?
The election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton was a shock to most Americans, but it was like an earthquake to black people in government service. Federal-government jobs have traditionally been the gateway to the middle class for African Americans, and as The Root has reported, with African Americans making up nearly 20 percent of the federal workforce, black federal workers are nervous not only about the possible job cuts under a President Trump but also about the job itself.
Can they work under a president who unapologetically demanded, with a full-page newspaper ad, that the Central Park Five receive the death penalty when they were falsely accused of sexual assault? Can they work under a president who propagated the racist Birther movement? Who began his campaign by calling undocumented Mexican workers "rapists and drug dealers"?
With the promise of anonymity, two prominent black federal workers agreed to give their impressions of how their offices are feeling about working under Trump, and how policies could change. Janet and Mike (not their real names) have spent over 10 years in the Department of Justice, and over five years in the Department of Veteran Affairs, respectively.
“Morale is in a wait-and-see mode,” Mike says. “We have older, more experienced workers who’ve tried to calm our fears by saying, ‘Agency X survived Reagan and Bush, we’ll be all right.’ Most people that are pro-Trump around here are more excited for the Republican Congress than Trump. They are in a wait-and-see mode, too, since most know he's a con artist. They think that they, the individual, will benefit greatly somehow, someway, from Trump as president.”
Janet agrees that her agency is in a wait-and-see mode, too, but that Trump’s early decisions have given them pause.
“His appointment of Sen. Sessions for attorney general, who has a history of being a racist, is alarming,” says Janet. “We have made history over the last eight years under Obama at DOJ, and the Congress has passed legislation that has, in some areas, leveled the playing field for minorities, LGBTQ persons and re-entering offenders, that I believe will now be also under attack and possibly repealed by executive order.”
Janet and Mike agree that Trump just may be the shiny piece of distraction that gets the attention, while the Republican Congress, and its agenda, may be the greatest danger.
“He won't do anything to the country that Congress won't allow,” Janet says. “I am more afraid of Congress passing harmful legislation than the president-elect and his Twitter rants.”
As for black federal workers sticking around, Mike says that Trump’s "unpredictability and lack of consistency" makes it hard for people in his department to do their jobs, and as a result, there could be some fallout.
“The level of professionalism has kept a lot of people around, but if things break the wrong way, there will be a brain drain of the middle management level, causing a high promotion rate of people who aren't qualified and/or aren't ready for the work,” he says.
Janet is more afraid that America itself will be fundamentally changed by a Trump administration, and she is unsure if she can work more than two years under one.
“The election results were disappointing,” she notes, “and I’ll feel a sense of loss for our country if [the] president-elect comes through on his promises of kicking folks out of the country, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and dismantling eight years of progressive gains for all people, but particularly minorities.”
“[I’m feeling] depressed, but not surprised,” says Mike. “This is how it always has been. America votes for their own individual needs rather then the greater good of the collective. I just hope this causes the other political [parties] in America to get their act together and start fighting smarter and much more locally.
“My job is to do the best job for the American people," he adds. "I compromised my morals and beliefs a long time ago. I have disagreed with the decisions of Bush and Obama, and Trump will be no different. Outside of work, I will try to work to get a different boss, but as of now, my paycheck says ‘U.S. government.’ so I work for the U.S. government.”
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.