As a white American who fights off a steady barrage of inducements to forget about my whiteness, this day reminds me of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, a massive government program more commonly know as the GI Bill. Millions of white Americans today continue to enjoy benefits handed out under this bill, benefits that were by and large denied to non-white Americans.
In fact, these benefits of the GI Bill have been so generous and extensive that Sociologist Karen Brodkin has aptly labeled the Bill the "biggest and best affirmative action program in the history of our nation." Brodkin also points out that the GI Bill "was for Euromales. That is not how it was billed, but it is the way it worked out in practice."
As Brodkin goes on to explain in her book, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America, the GI Bill's extensive benefits helped returning WW II veterans re-integrate themselves into society -- certain veterans, that is. Jewish American veterans had been recently welcomed into an expanding notion of American whiteness, so Jewish American men reaped benefits that they would have had trouble garnering in the more overtly anti-Semitic American climate before the war.
Unfortunately, the benefits were basically denied to returning non-white veterans, including many white and non-white women. Gains made by women and non-white workers in the war-time industrial boom were also retracted, as de facto affirmative action for returning "Euromale" veterans meant firing such people to provide jobs for white men.
As Brodkin explains in her book,
The GI Bill of Rights . . . is arguably the most massive affirmative action program in American history. It was created to develop needed labor force skills and to provide those who had them with a lifestyle that reflected their value in the economy.
The GI benefits that were ultimately extended to 16 million GIs (of the Korean War as well) included
- priority in jobs -- that is, preferential treatment, but no one objected to it then
- financial support during the job search
- small loans for starting up businesses
- and most important, low-interest home loans and educational benefits, which included tuition and living expenses.
The reason I refer to educational and occupational GI benefits as affirmative action programs for white males is because they were decidedly not extended to African Americans nor to women of any race. Theoretically they were available to all veterans; in practice, women and black veterans did not get anywhere near their share. . . .
During and after the war, there was an upsurge in white racist violence against black servicemen, in public schools, and by the Ku Klux Klan. It spread to California and New York. The number of lynchings rose during the war, and in 1943 there were anti-black riots in several large northern cities. Although there was a wartime labor shortage, black people were discriminated against when it came to well-paid defense industry jobs and housing. In 1946, white riots against African Americans occurred across the South and in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Gains made as a result of the wartime civil rights movement, especially in defense-related employment, were lost with peacetime conversion, as black workers were the first to be fired, often in violation of seniority. White women were also laid off, ostensibly to make room for jobs for demobilized servicemen, and in the long run women lost most of the gains they had made in wartime. . . .
Black GIs faced discrimination in the educational system as well. Despite the end of restrictions on Jews and other Euro-ethnics, African Americans were not welcome in white colleges. Black colleges were overcrowded, and the combination of segregation and prejudice made for few alternatives. About 20,000 black veterans attended college by 1947, most in black colleges, but almost as many, 15,000, could not gain entry. Predictably, the disproportionately few African Americans who did gain access to their educational benefits were able, like their white counterparts, to become doctors and engineers, and to enter the black middle class. . . .
Karen Brodkin's explanation of the racist effects of the GI Bill -- one among many examples of a long and ongoing history of affirmative action for whites -- is the best and clearest I've read so far. What I find especially valuable is how she illuminates the construction of some of the deeper underpinnings of "institutionalized racism," a reality that many white Americans seem to find too abstract to keep firmly in mind. Thanks to the generational transference of these benefits, the lives of vast numbers of white Americans continue to be buoyed up by the effects of the GI Bill; also, like other white privileges, this array of advantages has come at the ongoing expense of non-white Americans.
Regarding these broad and powerful institutional effects of the bill, Brodkin writes,
The record is very clear. Instead of seizing the opportunity to end institutionalized racism, the federal government did its level best to shut and double-seal the postwar window of opportunity to African-Americans’ faces. It consistently refused to combat segregation in the social institutions that were key to upward mobility in education, housing, and employment.
Moreover, federal programs that were themselves designed to assist demobilized GIs and young families systematically discriminated against African Americans. Such programs reinforced white/nonwhite racial distinctions even as intrawhite racialization was falling out of fashion. This other side of the coin, that white men of northwest European ancestry and white men of southeastern European ancestry were treated equally in theory and practice in regard to the benefits they received, was part of the larger postwar whitening of Jews and other eastern and southern Europeans.
As the title of Brodkin's book suggests, her interest in the effects of the GI Bill on Jewish Americans is personal -- it helps to explain the relatively greater success of her Jewish American family. However, I think that other white Americans should take her insights personally, by figuring out how this de facto white affirmative action program, like many others, has increased their own access to "the American Dream." As we white Americans continue attributing the relatively greater success that we and our ancestors have achieved to fighting off foreign enemies, to working hard, and to tugging on our proverbial bootstraps, we should also understand the institutional leg-ups that have been extended to us, but not to others.
As Brodkin writes of her own favorably whitened background,
To say that Jews pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps ignores the fact that it took federal programs to create the conditions whereby the abilities of Jews and other European immigrants could be recognized and rewarded rather than denigrated and denied. The GI Bill and FHA and VA mortgages, even though they were advertised as open to all, functioned as a set of racial privileges. They were privileges because they were extended to white GIs but not to black GIs. . . .
Jews and other white ethnics’ upward mobility was due to programs that allowed us to float on a rising economic tide. To African Americans, the government offered the cement boots of segregation, redlining, urban renewal, and discrimination.
PS -- for a look at how the GI Bill was explained to veterans at the time, here's a newsreel prepared for them by Army-Navy Screen Magazine: