- Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America by Eric S. Yellin
C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, 1955), which Martin Luther King, Jr., called the civil-rights movement’s historical bible, demonstrated that the segregationist laws passed by many southern state legislatures relatively late in the nineteenth century were not inevitable. Yellin makes an equally compelling case that President Woodrow Wilson’s riding the Jim Crow wave and segregating the federal civil service was not inevitable either. Wilson intended, Yellin argues, “not just racial separation but the limitation of black people to a controlled and exploitable class of laborers” (2). Some might call this viewpoint redundant Marxism. Whether it portrays black people as enslaved in the bad days or free at last in the thank-God-Almighty days, the entire point of capital and the power that it represents is to exploit labor. White over black and all the other colors merely establishes a pecking order.
By focusing on how the state assimilated racism into the bureaucracy, Yellin makes an important contribution to our understanding of “white supremacy” as “a necessary precondition if the United States was to be a model nation, if the federal government was to be a model employer, and if Washington was to be a model city” (3, 6). If that story were not ugly enough, Yellin further demonstrates how Wilsonian segregation “undermined the claims to citizenship and economic security of all African Americans.” In effect, Yellin has constructed a banality of evil tale explaining how and why “the American state has been complicit in racism and black poverty” (4, 8).
Segregation often became the default position regarding “managerial questions of efficiency” for Wilson and other progressives who leaned in that direction (7). Yet Yellin makes it clear that “Wilsonian discrimination was not based upon an explicit set of policies and principles. Instead, [it percolated from] 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 [End Page 409] they were being fair” (115). Few attitudes are as strange as this pretension to fairness on their part.
Three of Yellin’s seven chapters cover the forty-five years before Wilson’s election. Chapter 5 analyzes what nonspecialists might consider a paradox: Why did so many otherwise honorable progressives champion segregation as a rational and supposedly scientific response to problems along the color line? Chapter 6 chronicles the resistance to Wilsonian segregation organized by black civil servants (especially those who worked in the Treasury Department and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and civil rights activists (especially William Monroe Trotter and Archibald Grimke).
President Wilson allowed his senior political appointees free rein, regardless of their intent. It is not clear whether those who justified their decisions on the grounds of good government or the unabashed racists did the most damage. Regardless, Wilson counseled patience and resignation. “We must treat this thing with a recognition of its difficulties,” he said (161). In his epilogue, Yellen ventures five years later—to August 8, 1925—when 35,000 Ku Klux Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue and then another sixteen years to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 of June 25, 1941, prohibiting, among other things, discrimination in federal agencies.
Both Franklin and his wife Eleanor, in fact, had their Wilsonian moments in 1919. Besides an English nurse and Scottish governess, Eleanor “acquired . . . a complete darky household [staff].” That summer, when a black scare brought interracial violence to more than a dozen cities, Franklin, then an assistant secretary of the Navy, told Eleanor that the four-day Washington, D.C., riot should have been stopped “quicker,” further giving his approval to the “handling of Africans in Arkansas”—a reference to the riot in Elaine where roving bands of whites drove past the fields and shot at cotton pickers.1...