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Finding Middle Ground on Race Requires New “GI Bill”

June 15, 2021

Molly Worthan’s NYTimes article, “Is There A Way to Dial Down Political Hatred“, describes the similarities between the religious divides that existed in the past and the political divides that are occurring today and concludes that there IS a way forward that could lead to more harmony between those in different political camps. That way forward is implied in this paragraph where she describes how our country overcame it’s prejudice against Catholics that existed for decades before subsiding prior to John F. Kennedy’s election:

Although a casual anti-Catholic prejudice persists in some circles today, many Americans greeted the Catholic faith of our 46th president with a collective shrug. Over the decades, a complex series of socioeconomic, cultural and ideological shifts smoothed the way for Protestants and Catholics to recognize one another as fellow humans capable of cooperating in the democratic process and even merging their families. Young lay believers contributed at least as much to interfaith understanding as bishops and theologians did. Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II; they marched side by side in the civil rights movement; they worshiped together in the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when Pentecostal-style revivals swept all Christian denominations and made a special impact on college campuses.

The underscored phrase about the consequences of Catholics and Protestants sitting together in college classrooms after World War II thanks to the GI Bill reminded me of an aspect of the GI Bill that I was unaware of until recently.  I always believed the GI Bill was available to all soldiers at the end of World War II, a belief that was undercut when I began to dig deeply into questions about reparations. In her essay posted on the History Channel website, journalist Erin Blakemore describes the discrimination against blacks.

In housing, Black veterans found themselves unable to get mortgages to build affordable homes in the suburbs that ballooned after the second world war.  Redlining and zoning ordinances kept blacks from purchasing homes which led to a generational wealth disparity:

Though the GI Bill guaranteed low-interest mortgages and other loans, they were not administered by the VA itself. Thus, the VA could cosign, but not actually guarantee the loans. This gave white-run financial institutions free reign to refuse mortgages and loans to Black people.

Redlining—a decades-old practice of marking maps by race to characterize the risks of lending money and providing insurance—made purchasing a home even more difficult for Black veterans. Lenders froze out poorer neighborhoods, ensuring that loan assistance and insurance would be denied. And new white suburbs often came with overtly racist covenants that denied entry to Black people.

In 1947, only 2 of the more than 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans in 13 Mississippi cities went to Black borrowers. “These impediments were not confined to the South,” notes historian Ira Katznelson. “In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”

As veteran applications flooded universities, Black students often found themselves left out. Northern universities dragged their feet when it came to admitting Black students, and Southern colleges barred Black students entirely. And the VA itself encouraged Black veterans to apply for vocational training instead of university admission and arbitrarily denied educational benefits to some students…

“Though Congress granted all soldiers the same benefits theoretically,” writes historian Hilary Herbold, “the segregationist principles of almost every institution of higher learning effectively disbarred a huge proportion of Black veterans from earning a college degree.”

The net impact of the GI Bill, then, was an INCREASE in wealth disparity.

The original GI Bill ended in July 1956. By that time, nearly 8 million World War II veterans had received education or training, and 4.3 million home loans worth $33 billion had been handed out. But most Black veterans had been left behind. As employment, college attendance and wealth surged for whites, disparities with their Black counterparts not only continued, but widened. There was, writes Katznelson, “no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill.”

Today, a stark wealth gap between Black and white Americans persists. The median income for white households in 2019 was $76,057, according to the U.S. Census. For Black households, it was $46,073.

Ms. Wortham’s NYTimes article comes to the same conclusion that the Supreme Court reached in Brown v. Board of Education: if people from different backgrounds sit next to each other in classrooms they begin to understand their differences and those differences are minimized. In reading how Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II led to the elimination of anti-Catholic sentiments a generation later, I can only wonder what would have happened had the GI Bill encouraged inter-racial attendance to college and inter-racial housing.

And here’s the bottom line for me: individual Americans can believe that they are not racist and they can say they don’t know anyone who is racist… but how can we look at what happened to my parent’s generation and NOT say that the system was NOT racist?

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