Thoughts On Affirmative Action, Ctd

A reader starts the debate over a big post you might have missed over Thanksgiving:

I make no claim of expertise on this topic, but your mention of the GI bill caught my attention. You seem to see it as a great equalizer, and I do not wish to challenge the fact that the GI bill created tremendous educational opportunities.  However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the policies of the GI bill disproportionately benefitted whites.  So, a policy that you portray as an equalizer arguably helped ossify and perhaps expand the racial gap in educational opportunities.  Just like so many of the social and housing policies of that era, the GI bill seems to have helped cement not ameliorate racial disparities.  Ira Katznelson has covered this topic well in his scholarly work, as well as in his book When Affirmative Action Was White.  In particular, he engages in a compelling dialogue with Suzanne Mettler, who argues that the GI bill was “relatively inclusive”.

Another expands on that reader’s point:

You claimed that the G.I. Bill “was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America.” You should be very careful with your history here.

As pointed out by Ira Katznelson in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, Jim Crow laws and practices were baked into the G.I. Bill. The congressional “Dixiecrats” at the time ensured that the administration of G.I. Bill benefits (and Federal Housing Administration loan insurance and WPA jobs) was left up to each state individually. This meant that Black soldiers in the South returning from WWII were often denied government benefits from these so-called meritocratic programs. Black veterans in the North were barred from buying houses in white neighborhoods and couldn’t obtain loans in Black neighborhoods due to housing shortages and the practice of redlining. From the NY Times book review (which is easier to copy-paste than my copy of Katznelson’s book):

The statistics on disparate treatment are staggering. By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks. In New York and northern New Jersey, ”fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.”

Discrimination continued as well in elite Northern colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia the least discriminatory of the Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946. The traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947. At the same time, white universities were doubling their enrollments and prospering with the infusion of public and private funds, and of students with their G.I. benefits.

I challenge you to do dig deeper into this history before opining that government assistance programs represent anything approaching a meritocracy. In fact, citing the G.I. Bill provides a powerful refutal to that notion. White men were able to attain government-backed housing loans and government-subsidized post-graduate education via the G.I Bill. This allowed them to accumulate wealth in the decades since, while Black people were actively excluded from that process. It’s almost like action was taken to affirm the place of white men in this country!

Many more of your emails to come regarding the debate over affirmative action itself.