Racism in government

I thought I would share a question from a friend:

I am a US citizen, an immigrant, and a federal employee. If my boss told me to go home to my birth country and fix things there before I speak out about reforms in my agency’s work, would that be OK? Or if the chief of the forest service said those words, or Sunny Perdue said those words – would there be consequences for them? Or is this sort of speech OK in the workplace?

Maybe some agency heads will answer it for us?

14 thoughts on “Racism in government”

  1. First, I think the title of the post “racism” is inappropriate. I would say possibly “anti-immigrant”.

    Some bosses like to engage in discourse about agency problems and solutions, others not so much. I used to work for a fellow named Rhey Solomon, whom I thought was a darn good boss (many TSW readers know him). When we would get a directive from above that we didn’t agree with, we would have a group complaint session on our staff (the RPA staff in DC). For about 15 mins we would vent. It was great because we got to hear each other’s views and feel listened to (and didn’t spend extra time complaining in small groups).

    A long time ago, the FS used to have a culture that I used to call “the squeaky wheel gets put in charge of Fleet Management” in that you had to be careful what you complained/suggested reform about or you might find yourself placed in charge of fixing it (with no extra time or funding). This caused a person to be cautious what they advocated in terms of reform, and to whom.

    I wouldn’t say what your friend’s boss said and I don’t think it’s appropriate. My advice to the employee would be, as many of us have found out in various painful ways, your boss is not always the right person to say certain things to. Finally, I’d add that people can always bring their ideas for FS reform here for airing under a fake name. We might even start a separate area for that, if enough employees are interested.

  2. Speaking about the “hard truths” is always difficult, but even more so when leaders say they want to hear those truths, but actually they do not.

    One of the most delicate approaches an employee must address is how to react to a leader’s decree when the employee clearly disagrees. Like Sharon described, some of us were fortunate enough to work for supervisors who recognized the need to share frustrations in a safe environment so we could vent, then figure out a way to move on.

    However, when the leader’s decree strikes at the employee’s personal life, that does seem to cross the line of being “professional”. Then, a choice becomes a difficult one: keep your mouth shut and see if this blows over, or speak up at the inappropriateness of such a decree. Many variables influence this choice, and the employee will face their own professionalism and integrity in choosing what to do.

    I wish Jon’s friend well in the choice they make.

  3. Let’s be clear that the President is racist, this is not singularly an attack that can be qualified as anti-immigrant but not racist (allowing somehow for a bending of words for someone to be anti-immigrant but not racist?). Rep Ayanna Pressley D-MA, one of the congresswomen included in the social media attack from Trump on the “Squad” this weekend, is African-American. Without knowing details about Ms Pressley’s family history, it seems highly possible that her ancestors were brought to the Americas by the slave trade, to labor in servitude. To suggest that an African-American Congresswoman whose family has for several generations been in the United States should go back to the country where they came from is racism pure and simple. So the headline of this post is right on the money. If a supervisor in a federal agency ever suggested that an African-American speaking for reform of the institution where they worked should “go back to where they came from” there would be no doubt about the inappropriateness of such racist behavior.

    • Gary, I believe that someone can be anti-immigrant but not racist. Reasonable people can disagree, but TSW is really not a place for that particular discussion. And I agree with you that that was an inappropriate thing for the supervisor to say. I don’t follow Trump’s tweets nor the ensuing hyper-drama, in fact, I recommended it as a mental health/time management strategy when we discussed Trump’s tweet about fire in California.

      • These women were clearly singled out because of the color of their skin and because of their names and perhaps their gender. Other people in congress may have similar criticisms of the administration, but they are not being called out for it in the same way because they are white and because their names do not stand out in the same way.

  4. Slaves were not immigrants. Reasonable people cannot disagree about that.

    But yes, you can be anti-immigrant and not racist. Such as if you opposed immigrants from, say, Slovakia.

    And, yes, this discussion is probably not what TSW is intended for. However, it is relevant. How can a federal agency credibly try to change culture to promote a ‘safe work environment’ when the example from the top goes in the opposite direction? I know that my attitude towards rules, such as the Hatch Act, has changed since I see so many blatantly violate them. This is how culture is made.

  5. Thanks for posting this Jon. It’s very sad that your friend even thinks they may get asked such a question. We’re in very uncharted water with Trump at the helm; he has poisoned the well of public discourse. And his behavior enables bullies and others.

    I encourage other readers to look carefully at the question Jon’s friend asked: Is this kind of speech acceptable in the workplace?

    My own answer as a former manager in the USFS is NO! I would say this borders on harassment and if a supervisor asked questions like that, or said things like that, in a job interview the personnel folks would probably ring their neck!

    I spent 4 years as a Ranger District representative on what was then known as the Civil Rights Action Group (CRAG) on the Gifford Pinchot NF. We were trying to help make the workforce more diverse and the work environment more welcoming for a variety of people in terms of ethnicity and other parameters.

    It really pisses me off that we have an Administration where the sort of question that Jon’s friend asked is being tolerated, and even encouraged, by the bully in the White House. Our society is losing ground and we’re being encouraged to see more people as “ the other or the enemy.” That is completely unacceptable and needs to be called out as wrong!

    The Forest Service and other agencies are likely to lose high-caliber people if they feel like a culture of harassment is okay and they don’t know when somebody is going to pull that type of BS on them.

  6. “Go back to where you came from is textbook racism.”

    Others here have picked up on the more relevant point. This is an administration that is hostile to the “deep state,” which is federal employees. We should expect to see that hostility play out in many ways, one of which is tolerating or creating a hostile work environment, including racism. Especially when that is what is being modeled at the top. I hope there are a lot of good bosses out there now.

  7. For whatever it’s worth…

    As my friend Jeff St. Clair pointed out, the handbook of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the use of phrases like “Go back where you came from” in the workplace violate US law.

  8. Ahh, an administration that is “hostile to federal employees.” Does anyone else remember President Reagan? I found this 2011 article about his legacy in the WaPo. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/reagans-legacy-for-federal-workforce/2011/02/07/ABK4SwQ_story.html?utm_term=.47152a930310

    “Despite the increase in federal employment under Reagan, Robert Tobias, director of Public Sector Executive Education at American University and a former National Treasury Employees Union president, said Reagan’s “lasting impact on the federal workforce was to successfully link his political goal of downsizing the federal government with the demonization of the workforce of the federal government.”

    It’s clear Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem” has had lasting impact. Said Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Reagan’s actions were deeply demoralizing to federal civil servants and left a legacy of distrust which has never completely faded.”

    I’m interested in the mechanics of how racism would be translated from Trump to Sec. Perdue to Jim Hubbard to Chief Christiansen. It seems unlikely they are not going to become racist because of the Prez- through some kind of atmospheric contamination.

  9. Here’s how “It’s ok to be racist now” could play out in the workplace: the “atmosphere” makes it more likely that a particular supervisor who is already racist will act on that impulse.

    • You could also argue that the current environment of “people saying mean things to each other on the internet” and a generalized lack of civility to others has been a cultural change that leads to more people saying mean things IRL.

  10. Sharon: “First, I think the title of the post “racism” is inappropriate. I would say possibly “anti-immigrant”.

    I avoided this nonsense topic when it was first posted, but my how things have changed since it’s posting on July 15 2019. I try not to follow your USA news over there from over here in Sweden, but the ideological take over here favours this stupid silly topic as well. Yesterday someone on Facebook posted a map of North America with all the so-called indigenous Nations and made another point of White European Racism plundering the planet. Recently the Elitest Scientists from the Max Planck Society did a study down in Africa promoting once again that all human beings evolved from apes, but then the question begs, why did they open up with a picture of black tribespeople wandering through a rainforest in an African jungle? Why do the only two photos they used show African women and a chimpanzee assuming similar poses, looking up into the forest canopy? Clearly the Max Planck Society, were treating the African people as their lab animals!

    But further compounding the ethical lapses in this so-called scientific study, the researchers only used female chimps and female women, making this a sexist issue as well as racist. So apparently with clipboards in hand, they observed their lab animals in their natural habitat. If this were really a scientific study, where was the control group? In other words why didn’t they test the navigation skills of white people navigating in an unfamiliar city? Why is it racist for anybody but a scientist to compare black women to Chimpanzees ? Can you imagine if certain smebodies did this in the States ? There’d be outrage everywhere, but somehow when a scientist does it, we get crickets. I posted this in that person’s post of White Europeans invading Native American nations and after some nonsense excuses and debate, she deleted it. I suppose because it was an inconvenient truth.

    So I’m asking, why the heck gets a Get Out of Jail Free Card on this crap where someone else would get a racist label ? Could it be said that science has always fanned the flames of racism and white superiority ? Again, I’m only posting this here because of the topic which I didn’t bring up and because so many who show up here are sciencey types who are also heavily political and ideological driven with their worldviews. I have half my friends over here in Sweden who come from various countries in Africa and I find such nonsense highly offensive, but almost no one wants to discuss it. I guess because they fear being labeled anti-science and a heretic of what the Scientific Orthodoxy mandates as a truth.



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