Racial discrimination has been a real and continuing problem in our nation’s history. Much progress has been made, but it continues to occur more frequently than we like to admit. It is also true that people sometime play the “race card” unfairly. My first experience with that sort of incident took place more than five decades ago.
I was working for a large Federal agency in 1962. My particular office had four divisions, and each division had several branches. Our branches were composed of about 15-20 professional analysts who were supported by a cadre of file clerks. These clerks ranged in grade from GS-2 to GS-5, one’s grade being based on duties and length of service. Each of the branches had one super clerk, much like a top sergeant, with the grade of GS-6. There were no Grade 7 clerks.
One of these GS-6 positions was open, and a promotion board had recommended that a Ms. W be promoted to take the job. Shortly afterwards a letter was received from a Washington attorney on behalf of Ms. C, a GS- 5 clerk in the same branch, asking why Ms. C was not being promoted to Grade 6 and suggesting that racial discrimination might be the answer. Ms. W was white. Ms. C was African American. Even though this was 1962, the attorney had used the magic phrase “racial discrimination”, and the effect was electric. No one less than a deputy director of our very large agency was assigned to oversee the response.
I was one of a group of supervisors charged to examine Ms. C’s and Ms, W’s employment records to see if there was any hint of discrimination in the way Ms. C had been treated. There was none. Ms. C had been fairly rewarded and promoted for her work, but Ms. W’s ability, performance, and time in grade was a cut above Ms. C’s, and she was the one who deserved promotion to GS- 6. We reported this to the deputy director, and he prepared a letter to the Washington lawyer. The letter stated that there was absolutely no evidence of any unfairness or discrimination in Ms. C’s treatment. The letter then closed with the following. “You will be pleased to learn that Ms. C will be promoted to GS-6 on — — 1962.” In other words, regardless of the facts, our agency had run up the white flag. Then, in order to avoid a counter discrimination claim from Ms. W, it was decided that both women would be promoted to GS-6 on the same day, thus creating two top sergeants in the same branch.
When the two ladies arrived for the happy event the office chief congratulated them both. At that moment, Ms. C insisted that she would not accept promotion to GS-6. Instead, she wanted a Grade 7. The office chief nearly collapsed with an apoplectic seizure. No one knew what to do with someone who had actually refused a promotion in hand. The Federal Civil Service Office was contacted, and there was no protocol. As far as they knew, no such thing had happened before.
What transpired after that I do not know, but my understanding is that Ms. C was banished to some organization in the subterranean bowels of the Agency. I never saw or heard of her again during my remaining 32 years of service.