1980s-1990s: Conflicting Times

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Emmett Cooper. Courtesy of United States Postal Service

The United States Postal Service continued to explore issues of racial discrimination in the 1980s. In 1983 the New York firm of Clark, Phipps and Harris, Inc. conducted a study that revealed “there were significantly fewer opportunities for minorities and women to be promoted to upper levels of supervision and management. In addition, they are more likely to be targets of disciplinary action”.(1) The Postal Service's employee statistics reported in March 1985 illustrate these findings. They showed that approximately 145,000 African American postal workers or 21% of the Postal Service’s workforce were overrepresented in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Additionally, over 19% of all postal clerks and carriers were African American, but only one out of every 28 executives was African American.(2)

While discrimination was still evident in the Postal Service in the 1980’s, a number of African Americans, including Emmett E. Cooper, Jr., were promoted to supervisory positions within the Postal Service. Cooper held a number of other positions including Chairman of the Board of Appeals and Review, Director of the Postal Management Branch, Bureau of Operations, Manager of the Postal Service’s Detroit District, and Postmaster of Chicago. Cooper held his position of Regional Postmaster General of the Eastern Region from 1977-1983.(3)

In 1992 researchers Craig Zwerling and Hilary Silver, argued in their article “Race and Job Dismissals in a Federal Bureaucracy” that the United States Postal Service had records showing that African Americans are dismissed at a higher rate, and more frequently than whites.(4) Zwerling and Silver followed 159 African Americans and 2,241 whites through the hiring process and beyond to determine whether accidents, injuries, disciplinary problems and high absence were higher among terminated African Americans.(5)

The researchers found that the African Americans they followed had lower injury, accident, and absence rates. They did, however, have slightly higher rates of disciplinary problems, and higher rates of voluntary termination than whites. The study concluded that African Americans were 2.13 times more likely to be fired than whites.(6)

Zwerling and Silver's study is only part of what has been a complex history. Figures from the same decade also show that African Americans had a higher share of postal jobs in comparison to their share of the civilian workforce. Specifically, African American men account for 11.4% of postal jobs, and only 4.9% of the civilian labor force.(7)

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A USPS letter carrier working hard to deliver some of the 2,900 pieces of mail delivered daily. Courtesy of the United States Postal Service, Gerald Merna, photographer

Personal stories from the 1990’s illustrate that the USPS encouraged career advancement. Clarence E. Lewis, Jr. became chief operating officer on June 2, 1998.(8) He began his career in 1966 as a letter carrier in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. He was a carrier for nine years, and recalls them fondly, “I loved being a letter carrier because I could interact with my customers, and that was rewarding.”(9) Lewis soon worked his way up and became Norfolk’s acting manager. In 1986 he was hired as the field director of Marketing and Communications in Richmond, Virginia. In 1989 he became the regional manager and in 1992 was named the manager of Processing and Distribution in Los Angeles, California. A mail handler from the Los Angeles Processing and Distribution center recalls Lewis’ impact. He said, “Moral among postal employees was very low before Mr. Lewis arrived, but he gave us incentives to encourage us to produce.”(10) He went on to say that Mr. Lewis “cared about his employees” but added that he “mostly cared about the mail.”(11)

Lewis continued to receive promotions, and in 1998 Postmaster General William Henderson named him chief operating officer, the third highest ranking position in the Postal Service. Lewis commented, “Truth is that I am just another employee who tries to do the best job he can do.”(12) Lewis had many goals for his time as chief operating officer. He said, “If I can help institute a strong team spirit throughout the entire organization before I retire, then I’ll consider my job well done.”(13) He also expressed interest in wanting to make the Postal Service a better organization than it was when he took his first job in 1966.

1) David C. Ruffin, “Stamping Out Racism In The Postal Service”, Black Enterprise, July 1985.

2) Ibid.

3) United States Postal Service, “RPMG Cooper Announces Retirement From Postal Service”, United States Postal Service Southern Regional Bulletin 12 (1982): 1,3.

4) Ed Winsten, “Researcher Says Blacks Fired More Than Whites”, Federal Times, Nov 2, 1992, Postal Scene Section.

5) Ibid.

6) Charles Bullard, “Black postal workers twice as likely to be fired, says study” Des Moines Register, Oct 15, 1992.

7) Robert A. Rosenblatt, “Blacks Dominate Postal Service, Latino Charges” Los Angeles Times, Aug 3, 1994.

8) Hope Katz Gibbs, “Clarence Lewis: A Man of His Word”, Postal Life, Nov/Dec 1998, 6-7.

9) Ibid.

10) Ibid.

11) Ibid.

12) Ibid.

13) Ibid.