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Reaching for justice

The GI Bill did great things, but it failed Black Americans


To understand the quandary America faces over race, consider the fictional analogy of an annual 200-meter footrace between a white guy and a black guy. Because of a rule in place for generations, the white guy is allowed to start the race 40 meters down the track.
Some have complained about the unfairness of this head start for years, and over time those calls grew louder. Some argue that the white guy should begin the race back at the starting line, but others object. Sure, the white guy has an advantage in the race again this year, but why should this particular white runner be penalized for decisions made in the past? The race should be run as it’s always been.
Others call out to let the black guy move down the track so he starts at the same place as the white guy. Others object, arguing that the black runner shouldn’t receive preferential treatment. As Chief Justice John Roberts famously argued, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Which sounds good rhetorically, even as it leaves the white guy with his 40-meter advantage.
Still others argue that the white guy doesn’t have a head start at all, and that any suggestion that he has an unfair advantage is un-American, and should, most certainly, never be taught in schools.
Most white Americans have a vague sense, at best, of the injustices that black Americans have faced over the centuries. Yes, they may have heard of slavery, which officially ended a long time ago, but the journey to equal rights and equal treatment under the law for blacks in America is far from over. And even if a black person today runs the race as fast as the white runner, they can never make up for the fact that the white guy had a head start.
And let’s be clear. The white guy has a head start in America, in so many ways. But for today, let’s just consider one. We celebrated Veteran’s Day earlier this month and some lawmakers in Washington used the occasion to, once again, introduce legislation to compensate the descendants of black veterans of WWII, who were routinely denied the benefits of the GI Bill. We’ve written in the past about how the GI Bill was one of the greatest and most effective investments ever made in America’s future, by helping to send millions of young American servicemembers to colleges and universities after they came home from the war. With their newfound skills and education, they sparked enormous advances in technology and innovation and created what was, by the 1960s, the most prosperous nation on Earth. That same GI Bill also allowed millions of American families to buy their first home, helping them to build wealth that would provide advantages to their children and their children’s children.
Yet, even though an estimated 1.2 million black Americans served in WWII, relatively few were able to take advantage of the GI Bill, because racist southern lawmakers in Congress at the time implemented measures specifically designed to prevent black GIs from receiving the benefits made available to white servicemembers. That meant many black GIs were denied the educational benefits that allowed white servicemembers to advance themselves economically. It meant most black GIs were consigned to rental housing because they couldn’t take advantage of the VA mortgages routinely available to white GIs. This denied so many black families the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth through home ownership.
This isn’t critical race theory. It’s American history, and it isn’t even history as so many blacks continue to face discrimination to this day. The only question is whether America is willing to do anything to address the systemic injustice that this country has long imposed on its black citizens. It’s too late for most of the WWII vets, but providing some financial compensation to the descendants of those veterans could help, at least in a small way, to right an historical wrong that blocked the path to a better life for so many black families in America.
When we hear the term, “reparations,” this is what we’re talking about. A way to repair the damage that government policies and societal biases have unquestionably wrought on people of color for generations. Many Americans, unfortunately, say they oppose such reparations under the false belief that everything is a zero-sum game. Or, that a benefit provided to one group, even to address historic injustice, somehow takes away from others. It is that false belief that is fueling the anger over trumped-up issues like critical race theory.
We all need to remember the words of the late, and much-missed, Paul Wellstone, who never missed a chance to note that “we all do better when we all do better.” When we lift black families, native families, or the families of any other disadvantaged group, we make all of our communities better and stronger. And it’s how we build an America that truly lives up to its promise.


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