One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them. Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period. Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”
This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.
If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans. White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment. Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades. Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.
But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit. This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits. Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.
The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants. These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.
This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.
I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today. This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.
A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.