In the late nineteenth century, the federal government’s bureaucracy led the way in offering African Americans steady, decent-paying work and an opportunity to gain a toehold in the middle class. For some educated, aspiring, and politically connected African Americans, it provided a rare chance to obtain jobs with authority and responsibility. By 1920, however, segregation and pervasive discrimination had taken hold in the federal bureaucracy, effectively eliminating these opportunities. According to Eric Yellin, this shift, which primarily took place during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, “played a dramatic role in changing the identity of black Washingtonians and, indeed, of black citizens throughout the United States” (p. 177). In his thoroughly researched and artfully crafted book, Yellin explains [End Page 528] the causes and consequences of the capitulation by the federal bureaucracy to a more pronounced form of white supremacy than had existed prior to Wilson’s election to the presidency. As he observes, the “racial regime” created under the Wilson administration significantly undermined the emerging black middle class and its quest for full citizenship.
Yellin’s study is a welcome addition to a growing literature on government workers and his argument makes a significant contribution to our understanding of race, politics, and progressivism. For one, he calls into question traditional interpretations of the move from a patronage system based on party affinity and personal networks to civil service appointments predicated on merit. Although African Americans should have benefited from a merit-based exam system that accorded jobs to individuals due to performance and not skin color, they did not. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Republican politicians used patronage to reward African Americans for their loyalty and thus, notes Yellin, “patronage networks . . . may actually have provided some institutional fairness at least in a government vulnerable to racial discrimination” (p. 51). As African Americans lost the franchise and the Republican Party leaned toward business interests, especially under Taft, white party leaders became less committed to their earlier role as “arbiters of opportunity” for African Americans (p. 51). Then, Wilson’s election in 1913 enabled white supremacists in the Democratic Party to institutionalize segregation and relegate blacks to low-paying, low-prestige jobs.
Yellin perceptively reveals the compatibility of progressive reform with racism and explains how white Democrats, such as Wilson, his cabinet, and his lower-level appointees, turned the language of progressivism and good government against African Americans. By associating African Americans with patronage and “dirty” politics, Wilsonians whitened the good government movement, suggesting that African Americans were incapable of staffing a civil service based upon expertise and the principles of scientific administration. Moreover, the “Wilsonian Praxis,” as Yellin labels it, equated segregation [End Page 529] with efficiency, further masking the race discrimination at the root of segregation and legitimating the practice with progressive reformers. These notions extended beyond the walls of government buildings, infiltrating Washington, D.C., and making it a much more segregated city than it had ever been prior to 1913.
By focusing on numerous agencies and different types of employees, from elite administrators to blue-collar workers, Yellin also emphasizes how messy, protracted, and negotiated this process of institutionalizing racism actually was. Similarly, he shows us in great detail the various ways in which African Americans in both political parties sought to combat it. Consequently, by the conclusion of the book, we are well aware that the spread of segregation and occupational segmentation in the government workforce was neither inevitable nor pushed by large uncontrollable forces. Although white supremacists labored to portray the racial hierarchy as a natural consequence of black depravity and unworthiness, Yellin demonstrates that it was constructed by individuals making deliberate decisions to deny a group of people access to economic, social, and political power. Indeed, the most crucial insight of Yellin’s fine study may be its illumination of how electoral politics and the actions of those individuals empowered by elections profoundly altered the lives of African American workers...