During World War II 1,154,486 black Americans served in uniform. Not only did they face continued brutal racism and discrimination when they returned home from the war, but the benefits of the GI Bill, which Congress passed as a gesture of gratitude for veterans, were denied to a great many of them. The U.S. Congress should adjust the current GI Bill to benefit their descendants. This would compensate veterans and their families for the withheld benefits to which their relatives were legally entitled and were unjustly denied. It could also help to reduce the historic race-based inequality that the United States still struggles with.
The U.S. military, like the nation at large, is looking inward at the vestiges of racism and discrimination that still plague the institution. Those things are clearly at odds with the American values that the military is sworn to uphold. There is an effort underway in both houses of Congress to rename bases named after Confederate officers, and the Marine Corps has banned the display of Confederate symbols on all of its installations. On July 15, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced measures ranging from removing references to race from promotion packages to changing biased rules about hairstyles.
Some of these changes are symbolic. They are not unimportant, however, in an institution where symbols and history are taken seriously. Others may have lasting effects in dismantling institutional inequalities that have hurt African Americans and other minority servicemembers for decades. All of these efforts are worthwhile and should be pursued vigorously. But fixing the biased legacy of the GI Bill could send a powerful message and, more importantly, actually repair some of the damage caused by racism that still affects black Americans today.
Some Veterans Are More Equal than Others
Technically the benefits of the GI Bill were open to all veterans. Indeed, there is nothing in the law that discriminates on the basis of race. “Black,” “white,” “Negro,” “segregation,” “colored,” or “discrimination” appear nowhere in the text of the law. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The key sponsor of the bill in the House was Rep. John Rankin, a notorious racist from Mississippi. Rankin had fought for laws banning interracial marriage, against laws penalizing lynching, and for the poll tax. Rankin ensured that particular language was included in the law to ensure race would be taken into account:
No department, agency, or officer of the United States, in carrying out the provisions of this part, shall exercise any supervision or control, whatsoever, over any State educational agency, or State apprenticeship agency, or any educational or training institution.
Rankin knew that, at least in the South, the GI Bill’s education benefits would be filtered through state agencies that were governed by both the formal and informal rules of Jim Crow. He could rely on the banks and the Federal Housing Administration to help ensure that the home loans would also be restricted.