Frederick W. Gooding, assistant professor of African American studies at Texas Christian University, spoke about his book, “American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981” at Red Emma’s on March 2. The book chronicles the history of federal workers from 1940-1980 in reference to the modern black freedom movement.
Gooding began his talk by talking about his choice of title. According to Gooding, his use of the word “deferred” is in reference to the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Gooding put this title in the context of the American dream.
“In theory, this American dream sounds really great on paper. But in practice what happens when you have to navigate this system when burdened with the gravity of racial discrimination,“ he said. “That’s what this title encapsulates: This tension behind the American dream that’s available to all, at least as purported by the government and this dream deferred.”
Gooding went on to speak about why Washington, D.C. and federal jobs were so attractive to black workers in 1941. According to Gooding, World War II opened the door for white women and African Americans to enter the workforce. Many of these African American workers flocked to D.C. because public sector jobs were thought to be less discriminatory than private sector ones.
“Maybe in the 1940s, we might understand that racial discrimination will take place in Selma, Alabama. But if there’s one place an African American can go and be treated with dignity and respect based upon the principles as espoused in our constitution... that would be Washington D.C.,“ he said.
He stated that Washington D.C. was dubbed the “chocolate city” to reflect the high number of black workers. According to Gooding, in 1971, the city’s population was 71.1% African American. This, he emphasized, is just over 50 years since Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal workforce in 1913.
“This segregation did not start to pass away until after World War II, [when] you had so many African American workers who were part of the workforce it simply wasn’t efficient to keep everyone separated and segregated,” he said.
However, he emphasized, between 1941 and 1981, black federal workers consistently had lower wages and were slower to get raises than their white counterparts.
According to Gooding, initiatives like the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were designed to counteract systemic racism, but were so backlogged that complaints could sometimes take years to be addressed.
“On one level [the federal government] is to be applauded for creating these initiatives, but at the same time the question is how effective were they?” he said.
Gooding emphasized the changes in the demographics of federal worker during his period of study, 1941-1981.
“From the period of 1940-80, we see an exponential growth of federal workers during that time period. Just from the period of 1934-44, there is a tremendous spike- almost ten times- from 30,000 to 300,000 workers,” he said.
Goucher student Alex Steitz said that he was particularly struck by Gooding’s analogy that emphasized the fluidity of racism.
“One quote that just keeps sticking out to me was that idea that racism is like water and it fills whatever container tries to hold it in,“ Steitz said. “That concept is important but people don’t express it enough.”