Dennis on Gooding, 'American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981'

Frederick W. Gooding
Michael Dennis

Frederick W. Gooding. American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. ix + 245 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4539-0.

Reviewed by Michael Dennis (Acadia University) Published on H-FedHist (February, 2019) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version:

One of the more enduring myths in modern American history is the notion that the federal government has been the source of good jobs for all, particularly for African Americans. Almost an inverse corollary of this is the stereotype of the indolent, ineffective federal employee, a figure which, in the popular, mind is often racialized. Using statistical data and strategic archival collections, historian Frederick W. Gooding Jr. attacks these both, presenting a lively challenge to the assumption that the federal government has offered blacks a refuge from the racism that pervades the market economy. At the same time, American Dream Deferred suggests that the stereotype is a key component of a larger political agenda designed to discredit progressive federal government activism itself.

Focusing on federal workers in Washington, Gooding presents a portrait of African Americans drawn by the opportunity of wartime work and by the implicit promise of federal government fairness. What they discovered was a city and a bureaucratic system that routinely circumscribed black aspirations. Fashioning the term “black collar workers,” Gooding argues that African Americans from across the skill and educational spectrum ran into racial obstructions that consigned them to the least desirable jobs, relegating them to job classifications that prevented them from advancing into supervisory positions and reinforced their status as second-class citizens. Gooding makes the convincing case that in the period following American intervention in the Second World War, black federal employees, indiscriminate of their professional qualifications or education and despite multiple official overtures to greater inclusion and opportunity, “remained economically marginalized” (p. 14).

Wartime demand for workers created opportunities that African Americans aggressively sought to exploit. But as Gooding makes clear through several poignant anecdotes, a relationship that began in wartime expediency proved stubbornly resistant to the nation’s official creed of democratic freedom, one that had only recently been burnished to fight the Second World War and was now being wielded as an ideological weapon in the Cold War. Gooding presents Ella Watson, an employee of the Farm Security Administration featured in the famous 1942 Gordon Parks’s photo “American Gothic” as exhibit “A” in the case for the black collar employee. The photo features a blank-faced Watson holding a broom and mop against the backdrop of a massive American flag in the offices of the Farm Security Administration. Traumatized by the loss of a husband to a violent death and burdened by responsibility for a daughter who also had two children but died tragically after the birth of the second child, Watson found herself working as a janitor in Washington. Tending to two dependent children on a meager salary, the job represented an improvement over domestic and agricultural work, but it offered little more than a hardscrabble existence. For twenty-six years Watson worked the night shift, pushing brooms, mopping floors, and cleaning offices, one of which belonged to a white woman who started at the FSA at precisely the same time that Watson did.

Gooding does not deny that work for the federal government offered a modicum of security and generally better wages than those earned by blacks in the South. Compared to northern white workers performing the same type of job in Washington, however, conspicuous disparities persisted. What American Dream Deferred underscores is the relative mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of administrators who were only too happy to accommodate white racial sensitivities by continuing to hire blacks as federal government menials. Gooding convincingly argues that “Watson’s lowly position encapsulated the frustration of black-collar workers who suffered the indignity of knowing that the only logical explanation for their social and economic plight was the illogical nature of racism” (p. 36). And it was not only janitorial staff who suffered the indignities of pay-scale stagnation, dead-end job categorization, and the deliberate thwarting of upward mobility. Harvard economist Robert C. Weaver, famed member of Roosevelt’s “black cabinet,” also left government service after eight frustrating years of trying to improve employment and housing prospects for African Americans without adequate authority and autonomy to effect any real change.    

As much as Gooding’s case studies—which include the indefatigable Julius Hobson, a crusader for the rights of black federal employees who once threatened to release rats into an upscale Washington neighborhood in order to make a historically black problem a white one—illustrate the continuities in federal government practices, it is his use of statistics—graphs, charts, tables—that drive the point home. Despite the documentation of systemic racial discrimination in the federal bureaucracy by President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, which produced the scathing To Secure These Rights in 1947, blacks continued to find themselves restricted to the least desirable jobs. Analyzing the revised General Schedule scale of 1949, which documented the fact that most African Americans toiled in the GS 1-7 grades, Gooding reinforces the case that, even after factoring in education and training, African Americans continued to occupy the lowest-paid and lowest-skilled jobs in the federal government. Despite mounting attention to racial injustice in the wider society and in the federal bureaucracy, blacks found themselves confined to “manual, monotonous labor” that “required little or no interaction with white co-workers, lacked managerial functions, and did not include supervisory powers over white employees” (p. 109). It was not for lack of presidential attention—Gooding even has a chart illustrating “President-led initiatives to reduce discrimination.” It was a lack of presidential and congressional determination to legislate change, to move beyond executive fiat to legislative equalization, to make the Civil Rights Act an effective tool of racial amelioration—in short: to eliminate the “increasingly covert” but maddeningly resilient practice of restricting African Americans to the lowest of “good jobs” in the federal government.

Gooding’s analysis belongs in the company of studies on the segregation of black workers in Washington but also works by Joseph McCartin, Thomas Sugrue, and Nancy MacLean on the experience of black workers in a racially stratified job market that made little distinction between the public and private sector. Yet through its singular focus on the experience of black workers in Washington, DC, as well as its detailed documentation of racial exclusion over time, American Dream Deferred explores new territory. One could wish that Gooding had deepened the analysis of the post-Reagan era, exploring the fortunes of African American federal employees as the politics of austerity became institutionalized in the 1990s and as the antigovernment, anti-union agenda of the Right became a fixture in the landscape of American politics.

Perhaps more to the point, Gooding stresses the admittedly valiant but frequently unproductive efforts of individual employees to seek redress through a sclerotic administrative bureaucracy that clearly did not subscribe to the notion that justice delayed is justice denied. Despite the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), racial pay differentials continued into the 1960s and 70s. Exploring the rise of resistance, the author highlights Blacks in Government (BIG), a “professional support group” (p. 166) that “positioned itself as an ally to management that merely sought to improve worker productivity and social relations on the job” (p. 169). Considering the history of federal government evasion, stonewalling, and subterfuge that Gooding has meticulously documented, however, it seems unlikely that BIG ever stood much of a chance of improving the prospects for African American federal government employees. This was particularly the case since BIG organizers did little to counter the tendency of vulnerable black employees to “avoid stigmatizing labels as militants or separatists” (p. 172). By contrast, the left-led United Public Workers of America (UPWA) defined itself as a vigorous champion of black equality and women’s rights, even holding a Conference on Negro Discrimination in the Federal Service in 1943 and representing black workers denied promotions in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Unfortunately, Gooding dispatches the UPWA in a paragraph. Emphasizing the alleged upside of the Cold War in the struggle for racial equality over the devastating impact of anticommunism on progressive unionism, the author misses the opportunity to consider how organizations committed to interracial class activism might have advanced the interests of black federal employees in the postwar period had they not been red-baited out of existence.

Similarly, Gooding overlooks the impact of anticommunism on progressive policy voices within the federal government, voices acutely attuned to the nexus of race and class inequality, which Landon Storrs has documented in The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the Left (2012). And while Gooding’s case for the inadequate enforcement powers of the EEOC is effective, he is curiously silent about the impact which the expansion of bargaining rights for workers federal workers had on African American employees, who now constitute approximately 25 percent of the membership of the American Federal Government Employees. The contribution of labor unionism to the advancement of black equality and the narrowing of the racial pay gap is largely missing from American Dream Deferred. This is unfortunate, considering that the conservative attack on federal government employees is simultaneously an attack on African Americans and their unions, which have proven critical to the struggle for racial equality, particularly for black public sector workers. 

Notwithstanding these caveats, American Dream Deferred presents a cogent analysis of the persistence of racial inequities in the one institution commonly considered the benchmark for meritocratic impartiality. It is also an important meditation on the capacity of institutionalized racism to limit upward mobility, inflict psychological damage, and quash dreams of a better life. The current drive to privatize, downsize, and de-unionize federal employment is steadily eroding even the job security that, despite all the qualifications which Gooding elucidates, once made the “good job” good for so many.  




Citation: Michael Dennis. Review of Gooding, Frederick W., American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. February, 2019. URL:

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