If the conversation about the end of the U.S. Postal Service sounds familiar, it’s not just because we’ve heard variations of it since 1970, when the old Post Office Department became a separate business. It’s also because the destruction of mail delivery closely parallels the wrecking of American passenger rail. Apparently the Congress has it in for quasi-public institutions with work forces composed disproportionately of African-Americans.
Passenger rail has always been a losing proposition; the money is in freight. But until the late 20th Century, as the price of using public assets—tracks, switches, signals and the rest—freight railroad companies were required to carry passengers at a loss. Then somehow this social compact broke down. Both railroads and their regulators started talking as if railroading were an ordinary commercial enterprise instead of a public utility. Ordinary for-profits aren’t expected to maintain business lines at a loss. Indeed, to the extent they do so, they’re considered incompetent. So the people making money from national railroad facilities were able to persuade Congress that they shouldn’t have to bother maintaining passenger service. In other words, the railroads figured out how to shift their burden—what had been a simple cost of doing business—to the public. Voila: Amtrak.
Independent passenger rail was bound to be a financial failure, and it was. So year after year after year Congress has complained about Amtrak’s losses and tried to reduce them by shrinking the system until by now it’s small enough to drown in the proverbial bathtub. Little-noticed along the way is the fact that many of the jobs being lost belong to black people.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black-led union recognized by the AFL, and probably the most powerful union dominated by African-Americans in the United States. Much of the foundation of the black middle class was laid on the decent wages and benefits and pensions fought for and won by that union. So whatever hurts Amtrak—and these days, pretty much everything does—also hurts the African-American community.
Now connect the dots to the Postal Service. Mail, like rail, is a public utility. (If you doubt that, take a look at the Constitution, where the Post Office rates a specific mention.) A group of companies—the mailing houses and catalog producers—get to use this public utility to make a private profit, and they’re doing very well by that arrangement.
Once again, though, the price they were supposed to be paying for this benefit was to subsidize service to individuals. So once again, someone re-conceived this public utility as an independent corporation subject only to the iron law of profit and loss. Now the profitable commercial service can continue on its merry way while the money-losing public service is forced to resort to the kind of cuts which predict—if they don’t actually cause—an imminent visit to the scrapheap (or bathtub).
And once again, an outsized group of the fired employees are African-Americans, because the Post Office was an equal opportunity employer before the phrase had even been coined. So right in the middle of the Great Recession another pillar of the black middle class is knocked down.
There is an alternative to the current flood of crocodile tears over the death of written communication. We could return to the social compact that regarded mail service—and rail service, for that matter—as something to be paid for by the people who benefit from it most. That doesn’t mean those of us who receive an occasional Saturday letter, or sometimes take the Metroliner—it means the freight shippers. In the case of the Post Office, at least, the public has been subsidizing them instead of the other way around. End that particular piece of corporate welfare and see how many post offices can suddenly re-open.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that these two agencies, staffed by black workers, have been asked to do the impossible and then punished for failing to manage it. But coincidences of this kind—which permit imposition of exceptional harm on one group provided the primary purpose of the harm is making money—are precisely what is meant by the term “institutional racism.”
It isn’t too late to remember that rail and mail are public utilities and to govern them accordingly. Otherwise, we’re just echoing the words of an earlier Gilded Age, spoken by a railway man as he was cancelling a mail train: “The public be damned!”