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Let’s Give Black World War II Vets What We Promised

The G.I. Bill created a prosperous middle class that was altogether too white.

An American World War II veteran
David Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
An American World War II veteran salutes on a beach during the 1994 anniversary commemorations for the invasion of Normandy.

In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, popularly known as the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill doubled the number of bachelor’s degrees in 1950 compared to 1940 (i.e., before the United States entered the war) and allowed veterans to buy houses with low interest rates and no money down, expanding homeownership from 44 percent of households in 1940 to 55 percent in 1950. The bill prevented a return to the Great Depression, lifted millions of American families into the middle class, and paved the way for Baby Boomers to become the richest generation in American history, with an average household net worth of $1.64 million. If you are white, grew up in the suburbs, and belong today to the professional class, the G.I. Bill very likely put you there.

It certainly did for me. My father, who passed away in June, was the first Noah to hold a college degree and the first to own his own home, going back at least as far as July 1863, when my great-great-grandfather Morris Noah, who made his living rolling cigars in store windows, emigrated from London to Jersey City. Today all my father’s children hold bachelor’s degrees, all have owned their own homes, and none is at any foreseeable risk of financial ruin. Some would say that’s thanks to a U.S. economy more vibrant than that of the Old World, but before the G.I. Bill, prosperity eluded three generations of Noahs in America. So thank you, President Roosevelt.

African Americans have less cause to feel grateful for the G.I. Bill. That’s because the bill was drafted by Representative John Rankin, a segregationist white Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of the House Veterans Committee, to minimize the availability of benefits to the 1.2 million Black soldiers who fought in World War II. This was achieved by administering benefits at the state level. The worst abuses, of course, were in the South, where 79 percent of all Black veterans lived; in some Southern states, a group representing Black veterans said in 1947, postmasters wouldn’t even deliver to Black households the applications necessary to receive terminal leave pay for wartime service.

But of course the G.I. Bill’s effectiveness was hampered in the North too through discriminatory admissions policies by colleges and through redlining by banks. In New York and New Jersey, 67,000 mortgages were insured through the G.I. Bill. Of those, fewer than 100 went to nonwhites. Levittown, the most famous postwar suburban development, explicitly excluded Blacks. As one Levittown lease stated, “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any other persons than members of the Caucasian race.”*

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in an excellent new report titled “Advancing a People-First Economy,” suggests we do something about this. The report proposes

extending to surviving Black World War II veterans and their direct descendants the housing and education benefits denied under the 1944 G.I. Bill. Veterans and their descendants could get access to the VA Loan Guaranty Program, as well as post-9/11 G.I. Bill educational assistance provisions, which grant financial assistance for school and job training. This recommendation is consistent with how veterans’ benefits are commonly extended today (that is, to veterans and their descendants).

According to a December 2022 paper from the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis, the long-term effects of the G.I. Bill’s unequal granting of benefits were profound. Black and white World War II veterans alike benefited financially from their service when compared to nonveterans, of course, but there were dramatic racial disparities. The cash value of benefits received by Black veterans was somewhere between 40 to 70 percent of the cash value of benefits received by white veterans. Descendants of Black World War II veterans, the Brandeis study calculated, received a long-term financial benefit of $23,847. That’s less than half the long-term financial benefit received by descendants of white World War II veterans ($59,638).

The proposal on G.I. Bill benefits was included in the American Academy report (which also recommends many other actions worth considering) at the prodding of Cornell William Brooks, a former NAACP president now on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The G.I. Bill was certainly not the only 20th-century legislation that harmed Black Americans,” Brooks wrote last December in a Boston Globe op-ed co-authored with the Kennedy School’s Linda Bilmes. “But it was one of the most pernicious, because education and homeownership are the foundation of intergenerational wealth.”

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who served four tours as an infantry officer during the Iraq War, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, both Democrats, have sponsored legislation in line with the Academy’s recommendation. The bill has 47 Democratic co-sponsors and zero Republican co-sponsors, and it has yet to be taken up by the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In July, 25 state attorneys general, most but not all of them from blue states, urged then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to move the bill forward. Nothing happened.

McCarthy’s inaction summons unhappy memories of Republicans’ unpatriotic treatment of World War I veterans a century ago. In 1932, the Bonus Army, a mass of 17,000 veterans of the Great War, descended on Washington demanding early payment of benefits granted belatedly in the 1920s and not available until 1945. The country was in a Depression, and the veterans were desperate. President Herbert Hoover’s response was to call in the United States Army, which sent a contingent led by General Douglas MacArthur (later a conservative hero for defying President Harry Truman in Korea). MacArthur’s troops cleared and burned the Bonus Army campsites, and Washington, D.C., police shot and killed a couple of the protesters. What a legacy. In 1944, a Democratic White House and Congress, mindful of that awful episode, took an admirably different approach with passage of the G.I. Bill.

Extending long-denied benefits to the heirs of Black World War II veterans, the American Academy says in its report, “would rectify a highly consequential racial injustice, address current and ongoing economic disparities, and improve the lives and livelihoods of Black veterans and their families.” Amen. President Biden, you’ve talked about the injustice of the GI Bill’s differing legacy for Blacks and whites. Veterans Day is coming up. Please include in your remarks this year a ringing endorsement of the Academy’s recommendation and of Moulton and Warnock’s bill.

* This article previously misstated the document being quoted.