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‘Barely Treading Water’: Why The Shutdown Disproportionately Affects Black Americans

Marines practice for the arrival of Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela to the White House in Washington, Monday, June 19, 2017, to meet with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

By Ari Shapiro

As the government shutdown enters its fourth week — becoming the longest in United States history — federal workers around the country are struggling to make ends meet. But according to Jamiles Lartey, a reporter with The Guardian, the shutdown is having a disproportionate effect on black workers and their families.

African Americans make up a higher percentage of federal workers than they do of the non-government workforce. That’s in part because, for generations, government work has provided good wages and job security to African Americans who faced more overt discrimination in the private sector.

Ari Shapiro of NPR’s All Things Considered sat down with Lartey to talk about some of the ways this disparity is playing out right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Ari Shapiro: Could you explain the history that led to our situation today, where African-Americans make up a higher percentage of the federal workforce than they do in the private sector?

Jamiles Lartey: The federal government obviously has its own untoward history of racial discrimination, from underwriting redlining, and federal mortgage programming, and excluding blacks from New Deal programming. But it has also been at the institutional vanguard of the nation’s slow march towards equality — more so than the private sector at large, and more than most state and local governments. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 8802, which banned race discrimination in the defense industry. And that’s largely seen as the most important move in support of the civil rights of black Americans from Reconstruction all the way until 1964, when the civil rights act was passed. The federal government, for fairly obvious reasons, just did a better job of abiding by the civil rights act than the labor market at large.

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