Bill of Whites: Historical Memory Through the Racial Looking Glass

Published as a ZNet Commentary, July 24, 2000

In 1992, white supremacist Jared Taylor lamented the ostensibly growing influence of people of color in the U.S. when he wrote:

“The old, standard history united Americans…It emphasized one point of view and ignored others. It was history about white people for white people…This served the country well, so long as Blacks and Indians did not have voices. All that changed (in) the 1960s. The civil rights movement gave voices to Blacks and Indians…It was the end of a certain kind of America.”

To listen to Taylor, whites are no longer in control of the nation’s dominant historical narrative thanks to a rising tide of multiculturalism forcing us to listen to the perspectives of others. Frankly, we should be so lucky.

In reality of course, the history we teach, learn, and remember is still largely a white-perspectived history, even though we rarely think of it as such. So used are we to perceiving race and identity as something only people of color have, we often neglect to notice when our own perspectives are intensely racialized, even as we try and pass them off as universal.

Case in point: a recent syndicated column by pundit Mark Shields, in which he extols the virtues of the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights. It’s a piece of legislation about which most of us have heard, and from which many we know — family or friends — have likely benefited: signed by President Roosevelt so as to help returning soldiers from World War II reintegrate into civilian life via subsidized education and job training.

In his homage to the GI Bill, Shields explains that while higher education had previously been the preserve of the elite, with the passage of this government mandate, “all that changed immediately,” as nearly eight million vets enrolled in college or job training. Additionally, he notes, veterans were extended favorable mortgage terms, allowing them to own a home for the first time. He concludes his Memorial Day essay by describing the bill as an example of “our ability to act for the common good.”

Now, far be it from me to dispute the positive effects of the GI Bill. It was indeed, and still is, in more recent incarnations, a powerful example of what the state can do to provide opportunity when it chooses. Yet, what Shields fails to mention, perhaps because he doesn’t know it himself, or it doesn’t seem relevant to him, is that the GI Bill was hardly a universal triumph; and the same can be said of the VA and FHA loan programs implemented around the same time to expand opportunity for members of the working class. For the working class that was able to take full advantage of these programs was hardly representative: indeed, the benefits of these otherwise laudable efforts were received nearly exclusively by white folks and white men in particular. Universal programs in name and theory: affirmative action and preferential treatment for members of the dominant majority in practice.

For blacks returning from military service, discrimination in employment was still allowed to trump their “right” to utilize GI Bill benefits. An upsurge of racist violence against black workers after the war, when labor markets began to tighten again, prevented African-American soldiers from taking advantage of this supposedly universal program for re-adjustment to civilian life. And although 43 percent of returning black soldiers expressed a desire to enroll in school, their ability to do so was severely hampered by ongoing segregation in higher education: none of which the GI Bill did anything to reverse or prohibit. Especially in the South, where segregation was most severe, opportunities for blacks to take advantage of the educational component of the bill were harshly curtailed. Largely restricted to historically black colleges and universities with limited openings for enrollment, nearly as many black veterans were blocked from college access as gained access.

And finally, during World War II in particular, black soldiers often served under openly racist white officers, many of whom issued undeserved dishonorable discharges to blacks in uniform, thereby denying them the benefits of the GI Bill. Black soldiers, on average, received nearly twice the percentage of dishonorable discharges as white soldiers. And even those discharged honorably had to confront another formidable obstacle: the US Employment Service, responsible for job placements. As author and Professor Karen Brodkin has noted, the USES provided little assistance to black veterans, especially in the South, and most jobs they helped blacks find were in low-paying, menial positions. In San Francisco after the war, and even with the GI Bill to assist them, the employment status of Blacks dropped to half their pre-war status. In Arkansas, 95 percent of placements for African American vets were as unskilled labor.

So too, with the VA and FHA loan programs for housing, both of which utilized racially-restrictive underwriting criteria, thereby assuring that hardly any of the $120 billion in housing equity loaned from the late forties to the early sixties through the programs would go to families of color. These loans helped finance over half of all suburban housing construction in the country during this period, less than two percent of which ended up being lived in by non-whites.

Far from being a mere historical dispute, this issue is important for a number of reasons: First, it is valuable for whites to realize how often we falsely assume that our perspective is the perspective of everyone, and that we can speak to what it means to be “an American” with some kind of all-encompassing authority. Humility on this score is in order, if we ever hope to address the internalized racist beliefs from which the larger community suffers.

Secondly, with the attack on affirmative action being led by those whose mantra of “preferential treatment” implies that only black and brown folks have ever gotten special dispensation from the government, it’s good to remind ourselves how long affirmative action for white men has been around.

And finally, since whites have reaped the benefits of these “handouts,” largely off-limits to people of color, and since many of those white beneficiaries and excluded non-whites are still around, passing down wealth (or failing to do so) thanks to the restrictive nature of these programs, it seems apparent that a similar effort now, on behalf of those denied opportunity under the original bills, should be undertaken. That we should pass comparable legislation to improve the housing, educational and employment status of Americans of color so long denied equity under programs that did these things for whites, is a matter of simple justice.

To not do so, would be not only to continue privileging the white interpretation of history, but to continue privileging whiteness itself. A columnist like Mark Shields can be forgiven for the white-blinders that blinker his analysis of the recent past. Less so, however, those of us who allow that past to continue producing inequality in the present.

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