Bryce Covert | Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,448 words)
Yvonne Renee Evans has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and she has spent most of them in the private sector. It was difficult to get ahead. “I put in multiple applications and never got a chance to advance,” she said. “The opportunities might be there, but I was always given a reason.” As a black woman, she wondered if it “could have been a racial issue.” But it was difficult to prove, even when people who had been there for less time or that she had even trained herself were promoted above her. And “they could remove you at any time,” she noted. Once when she managed operating room scheduling at a hospital with a young, white woman, the hospital decided it wanted to downsize the team to one person. Evans was the one removed from the role, demoted to a lower-level position with a pay cut. “I could have fought it, but it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “You pick your battles, and that wasn’t one I chose to pick.”
But then, after retiring from two different private sector jobs, she took a position at the John D. Dingell Veterans Administration Medical Center in Detroit in 2008. She didn’t need the work — she could have gone into full retirement — but her husband is ex-Army, and she wanted to serve veterans. She quickly found out it was also a rewarding place to work — very different than what she’d encountered in private hospitals. “The advancement here was wonderful,” she said. “You could move up the professional ladder in leaps and bounds as long as you did the work, you had the credentials. You could get to higher levels than you could in the private sector.”
She now runs a podiatry clinic. “Every year I get appreciation awards,” she noted. She’s also been awarded for being an exemplary employee at the VA. “I never would have gotten awarded like that in the private sector. Never.” The money doesn’t make her rich, she said, but it does allow her to save for retirement and help her grown children if they need it. “I am truly the middle class,” she said.
Evans wouldn’t have always found a welcoming workplace in the government. As late as the turn of the 20th century, letting black workers into the federal government was seen as “akin to bringing down the federal service,” explained Frederick W. Gooding, assistant professor of African American studies at Texas Christian University and author of American Dream Deferred. Under President Woodrow Wilson entire departments within the federal government were segregated, with literal barricades separating black and white workers in some agencies and extra bathrooms installed so they wouldn’t have to share the same facilities. But then World War II hit. The government needed a lot more employees — both for the war effort and to staff up President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vast expansion of the government. “Because there’s all these new positions, managers can hire people of color without displacing white workers,” said Jennifer Laird, assistant professor of sociology at Lehman College. By the 1960s, that expansion “gave African American workers a foothold in the public sector.” Black people were fleeing “vitriolic racism in the private sector,” Gooding noted. But the racism they once found in public employment was mediated by need. “It’s not because the federal government woke up one day and said, ‘I’m feeling quite altruistic, let’s give blacks opportunities,’” Gooding said. “They needed bodies, it’s simply a supply and demand equation.”
The Great Migration helped take care of the supply. As black families moved en masse from rural Southern areas to urban cities in the North, they found employment with the federal and local governments when they arrived. That movement from the private sector to the public sector built a black middle class across the country, one that to this day is sustained in large part by public sector employment like the job Evans was able to secure at the VA. Those gains, however, are tenuous, and they are particularly threatened as President Trump and his fellow Republicans strive to severely reduce the size of the federal government. Read more…