16.1 million US citizens fought in the armed services during World War II. Of these, over 1.2 million were African American, serving at home and in Europe and the Pacific. They served with honor and distinction, while simultaneously facing discrimination and segregation both in the service and at home.
When WWII ended, returning soldiers were rewarded for their service and sacrifice through benefits provided by the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – better known as the GI Bill. The GI Bill provided returning veterans with low-interest mortgages, stipends for tuition and living expenses to attend college or trade school. The education and training benefits continued through 1956, and insured loans continued until 1962. Over ten million veterans benefited from these provisions, and the US economy saw a post-war boom thanks to this investment in education and housing.
Unfortunately, not all veterans benefited equally from the GI Bill, and the repercussions from this inequity reverberate into today. Housing loans readily available for white veterans were often denied black veterans, as banks refused to extend loans for housing in black neighborhoods, and discriminatory covenants and racism kept African American families out of the rapidly growing white middle class suburbs.
Opportunities to take advantage of tuition benefits also were severely restricted for African Americans. Nineteen states, particularly in the south, had a segregated educational system, with separate institutions of higher learning for black students. Many private colleges either did not admit blacks at all, or had strict quotas. The historically black colleges in the south saw a doubling of their student populations, but they were ill-equipped to deal with this influx. Further, many of these institutions lacked graduate programs and many were junior colleges, offering less than a Bachelor’s degree.
Job opportunities were also severely curtailed for African American vets, and the systemic racism in the military and in governmental agencies exacerbated the problem. African American soldiers were given nearly twice the percentage of dishonorable discharges as white soldiers. A dishonorable discharge made them ineligible to receive GI benefits. Further, the US Employment Service, which was charged with helping soldiers find employment, steered African American vets to low-paying, menial, often unskilled jobs.
All this is of more than historical interest, as the effects on the long-term upward mobility of the black community is still being seen today. The growth of the white middle class was largely fueled by the GI Bill. Access to higher education led to middle- and upper-level jobs. The ability to buy a low-cost house, the value of which grew exponentially from the forties to the end of the twentieth century, laid the foundation for wealth that could be passed down to the next generation and the generation after that. The African American community, having limited access to these benefits, reaped limited long-term rewards, and consequently had less accumulated wealth to pass down. This has been an important factor in the ongoing economic disparities between the black and white communities, including disparities in home ownership and educational attainment.
Today, as our country engages in the important debates over health care, education, low-income housing, job creation, food insecurity and nutrition, safe water and clean air, let us learn from the mistakes of the past. Let us insure that all Americans have equal access to benefits and services, and even more, let us use new policies and programs to redress the inequities of the past. While it might be attractive to imagine that each of us are rugged individualists who can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, the reality is each of us benefits in myriad ways from government programs and policies, from the family and class we were born into, and from our abilities to take advantage of these things. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that everyone is able to access and benefit equally, and that we all work together to lift up every American into prosperity.
Want to take action in the quest for racial justice? One place to start is with the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Challenge. Take the Challenge and let us know what you've learned from it! http://debbyirving.com/21-day-racial-equity-habit-building-challenge/