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Bill of Whites: Historical Memory Through the Racial Looking Glass


Tim Wise

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 1960’s. The civil rights movement gave voices to Blacks and

Indians…It was the end of a certain kind of America."

To

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.

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, and

later Korea, reintegrate into civilian life via subsidized education and job

training.

In

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."

Now,

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.

And

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.

For

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.

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 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.

And

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.

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, 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

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 2% of which ended up being lived in by non-white persons.

Far

from being a mere historical dispute, the issue I raise here 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 and others how long affirmative action for white men has been around.

And

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.

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.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based activist, lecturer and writer. He can be reached at

[email protected]

 

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