African Americans and the GI Bill Ira Katznelson in his article, “When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America” published in 2005 by W. W. Norton & Company, London, gives his take on how services were rendered to ex-soldiers of the Second World War. In a nutshell, Katznelson strongly believes that the GI Bill which was enacted in June 1944 to provide a lifeline to US veterans was marred by racial prejudice, although many were led to think that all beneficiaries would be treated equally.
Based on the facts that he has presented in this article, I strongly agree with the author that although the program seemed unrivaled in its promise for egalitarianism, it was quickly discerned and employed as a policy “For White Veterans Only”. Equal treatment under the GI Bill was most likely an illusion. Although there was no racial segregation contained in the new law, the transfer of power to individual states instead of a centralized federal government quarter ensured discrimination against the blacks who sought the services prescribed in the bill.
To ensure continuity and a throttlehold of Jim Crow laws, the key lay in bringing different local states and their agencies (which were nearly all-white decentralized units charged with administration) into the set-up. To begin with, a look at the team that spearheaded the making of the legislation is enough to raise eyebrows. The Committee on World War Legislation in the House of Representatives was chaired by a blatant segregationist, John Rankin. Rankin used the Southern approach of decentralizing administration and give racial discharge of the policies to states and localities.
The Veterans Administration and the American Legion, which were at the forefront of implementing the GI bill, clearly approved of racial segregation and were reluctant to dispute racial policies embedded in the South. I think this was a calculated move aimed at garnering Southern support to pass the bill in Congress. Like Katznelson, I read malice in the whole affair. If the objective was genuinely to help national heroes, why is it that service was not rendered through direct federal welfare provision?
Roosevelt’s government put forth a proposal to manage the postwar benefits for veterans from a “strong central directive agency” that would collaborate and direct all other agencies. The South would hear none of it. The commander of the Legion proffered a persuasive argument that sought to explain why they preferred individual states to control majority of the elements in the bill. Apparently they intended to coin the law in line with the South’s racial rules and customs.
Racism had severely taken shape in the US and one bill may not have been enough to ensure equality of the subjects. Several lobby groups expressed their reservations concerning the new bill with valid reasons. They explicitly ascertained that racial bigotry in the South prevented Negro veterans from acquiring full benefits under the GI bill. I feel that the barriers that black veterans faced in trying to access services described in the GI Bill clearly ridiculed the legislation’s “open-hearted promises”.
How is it that an initiative that sought to help white and black ex-soldiers alike is the same scheme that ensured that blacks would never benefit from the rewards of its provisions? In the education front for instance, I see that a profound world of discrimination along the lines of color existed. Prior to the war, most blacks failed to join college due to lack of funds; but thanks to the federal disclaimers a large number of returning veterans would take advantage of the opportunities. Consequently, it would only be logical to develop the institutions to hold the new entrants.
Unfortunately, in black colleges the budget, facilities, staff, fields of specialization offered among other prerequisites remained the same despite the overwhelming number of people who were interested in enrollment. Moreover, instead of rooting the Supreme Court’s policy of separate schools for white and colored persons, individual states fortified it. In Mississippi alone for instance where black population was more than 50%, only 7 out of the 33 institutions were allocated for blacks.
Poor and inadequate facilities, less and unskilled personnel, lack of space, and denial of state support were among the many reasons that most black institutions were incapable of admitting all the qualified veteran soldiers. Very few colleges were endorsed by the Association of American Universities. Furthermore, hands-on training was also offered for those who did not have the minimum qualification for college entry. However, in the agricultural sector where a significant number of veterans applied, blacks were faced with the problem of perverse white administration.
In my opinion, the whites indeed felt threatened by the fact that blacks would access better wages and they would be able to own farms. With money in their pockets and a higher social standing, blacks would not be willing to take up menial jobs as farm laborers and housemaids; and as such whites offered on-the-farm and on-the-job training for very few of Negro veterans. Since nothing had been done to challenge local racial customs, white owners of businesses who were the majority at the time disinclined to accept black trainees. Additionally, vocational schools too reeked of impediments for interested blacks.
According to Katznelson, surprisingly black veterans were exploited by training schools that offered little or no actual training while swindling them of the GI bill grants. Because the VA could not directly impose rules on state schools, the majority of state departments mandated to supervise and consent worthy institutions disregarded the recommended standards. As such, these schools became profit-making ventures at the expense of African Americans. What’s more; for black veterans who wished to set up the own business ventures, they were denied access to loans promised in the GI Bill.
Banks rejected them on the basis that they did not have adequate personal capital, credit ratings and good environments for the establishment of their investments. In conclusion, I concur with Katznelson that the GI Bill indeed presented the black veterans with the best opportunities they would ever access. It was, as Michael Bennett put it, “America’s first color-blind social legislation”. African Americans and whites alike were offered sponsored mortgages, investment loans, benevolent educational grants, and job training; a feature that was not typical of the society at the time.
Nonetheless, the manner in which the program was set up and overseen completely undermined its initial intent. It is common knowledge that “new wine is not put into old skins”; similarly for the promise of fair treatment to be realized, its implementation needs to consider these primary narrow-minded racial practices and traditions. References Boulton, M. (2008). How the G. I. Bill Failed African-American Vietnam War Veterans. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 58, 57-61. Katznelson, W. (2005). When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. London: W. W. Norton & Company.