For generations, the U.S. Postal Service had a reputation for employing African Americans when many others would not.
Even slaves delivered mail.
In 1794, Postmaster General Timothy Pickering, appointed by President George Washington, said, “. . .if the inhabitants. . . should deem their letters safe with a faithful black, I should not refuse him.”
Despite a brutally racist national environment in the 1800s, more than 140 names are on the USPS list of known African American postmasters during that period.
And although discrimination certainly existed in what was then known as the Postal Department, it was “the single largest employer of African Americans” between 1961 and 1966, according to a Smithsonian National Postal Museum article by Deanna Boyd and Kendra Chen.
“The Postal Service has been very instrumental in our evolution from slavery to mainstream America . . . middle-class employment,” said William Burrus, former president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU).
But now, a major civil rights coalition is concerned that current policies could dull the luster on that legacy. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says Postal Service consolidation plans could harm the black community that has depended on it.
In a related issue, the Leadership Conference also urged the Senate to delay confirmation of Mickey D. Barnett’s reappointment to the Postal Service’s Board of Governors. Barnett, chairman of the board, has lobbied for the payday lending industry, which a Leadership Conference letter to senators said has been “harmful” and “destructive” to black and brown communities.
In a separate letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the organization opposed USPS plans to consolidate postal operations, saying the reorganization could have “a significant, detrimental impact on workers in both urban and rural communities and in communities of color.”
With that caution, the coalition of more than 200 national organizations urged the committee to include language in spending legislation “that would prevent the USPS from closing or consolidating any more area mail processing facilities during Fiscal Year 2015.”
Action on Barnett and the spending bill could come within days. His term expires Monday, the same day that details of the spending bill are expected to be released. The consolidation process, however, is already underway.
Due to “dramatically declining mail volumes,” the Postal Service has consolidated 143 mail processing facilities since 2012 and is consolidating 82 more, according to Toni DeLancey, a USPS spokeswoman. “There are now fewer letters and considerably more packages, and the network must reflect that,” she said.
But the Leadership Conference said that the cuts are being made “without sufficient consideration [or] consultation with the community.” It cited an Oct. 6 inspector general’s “management alert” that said the Postal Service did not adequately study the impact of the consolidations or “afford affected persons ample opportunity to provide input.”
Although there have been no layoffs, the USPS has reduced its workforce as its workload has dropped. That has a particular impact on the black community, because the Postal Service’s workforce is disproportionately black and better paid than other African Americans. About 21 percent of postal employees are black, almost double the representation in the national workforce.
“Postal consolidation hits a disproportionate number of African American breadwinners,” said James A. Parrott, deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research firm that has worked for the union. “Plus, considering that postal wages are two-thirds higher than the average weekly wage for all African American workers, consolidation would be a serious blow to the shrinking African American middle class.”
That “close relationship between the USPS and the communities of color” is one reason the Leadership Conference said it is concerned about Barnett’s ties to the payday industry. Proposals to allow USPS to provide certain financial services, including offering small loans, are supported by many African Americans and Latinos, according to the civil rights organization. But it would be “deeply troubled” if Barnett used his position, the letter said, to promote “the sorts of practices we have seen in the payday lending industry.”
The Leadership Conference urged the Senate to delay a vote on Barnett’s appointment to allow time to closely question him on payday lending practices. If the vote proceeds, the group said, senators should oppose confirmation.
DeLancey said Barnett was unavailable for comment.
But he would not be able to duck questions from the Senate.
“He must give assurances,” the Leadership Conference said, “that he would not use his position to promote the practices of the industry he previously represented.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.