Bill of Whites: Historical Memory Through the Racial Looking Glass
1992, white supremacist Jared Taylor lamented the ostensibly growing influence
of people of color in the U.S. when he wrote:
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 1960's. The civil rights movement gave voices to Blacks and
Indians...It was the end of a certain kind of America."
listen to Taylor tell it, whites are no longer in control of the nation's
dominant historical narrative thanks to the rising tide of multiculturalism,
forcing us to listen to the perspectives of others.
we should be so lucky.
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.
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, and
later Korea, reintegrate into civilian life via subsidized education and job
his homage to the GI Bill, Shields explains that whereas higher education had
previously been the province of the elite, with the passage of this
government-funded mandate, "all that changed immediately," as nearly 8
million veterans 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."
far be it from me to dispute the positive effects of the GI Bill. It was indeed
a powerful example of what the state can do to provide economic and educational
opportunity when it so chooses.
yet, what Shields neglects 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 the
universalistic triumph he romanticizes. And the same can be said of the VA and
FHA loan programs implemented during the middle of the century to expand
opportunity for members of the working class.
in truth, 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 mostly--and often 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.
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 shortly 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.
although 43% 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.
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.
San Francisco, shortly after the war, and even with the GI Bill to assist them,
the employment status of Blacks dropped to half their pre-war status, and in
Arkansas, 95% of all placements for African American veterans were as unskilled
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 2% of which ended up being lived in by non-white persons.
from being a mere historical dispute, the issue I raise here is important for a
number of reasons:
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.
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 and others how long affirmative action for white men has been around.
finally, since whites have reaped the benefits of these massive
"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 GI and related 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.
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.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based activist, lecturer and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com