Waking Up White: Chapter 7

The Reading: The GI BIll

The author discusses the GI Bill, and how redlining and other consciously racist policies and practices made it nearly impossible for black GIs to use their GI Bill.  I hadn’t been aware of this until I saw an episode of “Race: the Power of an Illusion” during a class at work. When I saw that, my first thought was to wonder why the other GIs didn’t raise hell.  But then, I realized that in that place and time, they mostly wouldn’t have known, any more than I did. WWII – Jim Crow still in effect – once they came back from the war, they wouldn’t have seen black men they served with, and that wouldn’t have seemed odd. So if the black GIs didn’t buy houses in their neighborhoods, the white GIs would just have assumed they bought in “black neighborhoods.”

(This – that half a century later I, as a veteran, could still not know that  – was my first big “a-ha!” about the real nature of “systemic” oppression in the US.  That so many things which seemed like individual efforts could work together to achieve both intentional and unintended goals in ways designed to keep them “invisible” to those not directly affected. Maybe the white GIs wouldn’t have done anything. But maybe people who had fought a war together would stand together. That things so neatly dovetailed to prevent history from knowing the answer to that was just one coincidence too many for me…)

When the author described her father going to law school using his GI Bill, I was floored.

College was one of the things that I hoped the service would allow me to do. But when I looked into it, I didn’t see how it could possibly work. The limitations on how I could use the money, the things it didn’t cover – I’d need to work full time and go to school full time in order to cover costs – except that working full-time lowered the amount they’d allow – I couldn’t find a way to make it work. I did finally get my degree – but not til about four years after my GI Bill eligibility had expired.

It took a bit of research to understand – but I got out of the Army at a time when college tuition was rising rapidly, and before the GI Bill was revamped. I found the charts showing the cost of college vs minimum wage over the years – “how many weeks did you have to work full time, to pay for a year of tuition.”  Until about 1970, it was ten weeks. By the time I graduated high school, it was 20. When I got out of the Army, nearly 40. I was on my own – and tuition alone was 3/4 of a year’s pay. the GI Bill theoretically covered some living expenses – but when I did the math, it covered less than half.  And it didn’t cover things like student fees or lab fees or books.

Maybe it was a coincidence of timing. Maybe it was just that the GI Bill was at its nadir of effectiveness – or that it assumed a returning GI was returning to something – a family that would feed and house him, for example. But ultimately, the money I gave the Army to pay for my GI bill benefits was money burned. I couldn’t find a way to make it work for me until I was able to cover more of the cost myself, and by then it was too late.

have benefited. Without VA loan guarantee, there’s no way I’d be a homeowner.

“Nowhere as far as I can see, is any advantage as hard-hitting and enduring as skin color. My white skin, an epidermal gold card, has greased the skids for a life full of opportunities and rewards that I was sure were available to everyone. My notions that America offered a level playing field disintegrated.”

Girl, all those advantages aren’t even available to everyone who’s white.  What on earth made you think they were available to people who were still marching to end Jim Crow while you were spending idyllic childhood summers at the lake?  Again, I run into a space where the author and I come from such different places, I can’t even connect to what she is saying.

The Role of Government

“I thought of how hypocritical my belief in small government was, now that I understood how well big government had served me through programs and policies such as those entwined in the GI Bill”

I learned in school that the ultimate purpose of a government is economic. Protect your territory? Land has value. Protect your shipping? Commerce, goods are valuable. From there it wasn’t a huge leap to realize that the rich and powerful run government to serve the rich and powerful. And the idea of giving a tiny percentage of that up to feed the people that they have left starving somehow makes them feel like those lazy, poverty-stricken SOBs are stealing from them, or at the very least that it’s money wasted.

To this day, “comfort food” is grilled cheese sandwiches – similar to the ones we’d make from the Wonder Bread and huge blocks of Velveeta cheese the government warehouse people would dole out. When family crises occur, my sister has us all over for pinto beans (and a ham hock!). These are the foods of our childhood.

Guess it’s a good thing for me that there were at least some folks in power who didn’t think feeding me was a waste of their precious money.

On Being Powerless

“I ruminated on this question: If my childhood of racially organized comfort and opportunity had made me feel like the master of my own destiny, full of confidence, and certain of a bright future, what did this imply about people on the flip side of the coin – people who’d been shut out of a world of comfort and opportunity? How does one construct dreams about the future under these conditions? How can one bear to watch TV shows depicting lives of comfort and ease for people with a skin color you don’t share?”

For me, at least, it worked the opposite way. If you don’t have much else, then you have to have dreams. If you can’t stand to look around you, you can look inside your mind instead. Watching TV – that’s easy. Even when they have your skin color, those people on TV aren’t like you – that’s fantasy. It’s just someone else’s dreams put out for you to watch. If “Leave it to Beaver” is as different from your life as “Love Boat” – they’re all just fiction. None of that is real, and none of it has anything more to do with you than the science fiction novel you borrowed from the library.

The Study Question

Have you ever uncovered a family secret or piece of information about a person or place that countered your previous perception?

Secrets? No. Lies? All over the place on my mom’s side. Getting to know her family once i grew up gave me a whole new view. And on Dad’s side – lies, misinformation or lost information – but not from him. The things he had been told about who is family were and where they came from – stories he knew inside and out, told over and over again – things that he “knew” to be true stories of his father’s family – didn’t stand up to later research. He didn’t know that side of his family well, even as a kid, so had no way to dig or to know anything more than his dad told him, and he died believing them. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I accidentally found evidence to the contrary.

Once you learned the new information, were you able to look back and see clues that had been there all along but that you didn’t recognize as evidence of a narrative you didn’t yet know about?

Nope.  In fact, the provable facts I found seem to directly contradict dad’s family photos and I have no idea what to believe. Still working on figuring that out…

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 7 post

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5 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 7

  1. I see something so interesting here in our childhoods. In the 50s and early 60s we were a large family on a very tight budget. We ate a lot of very cheap foods (milk soup, for example, which was milk, salt, water, butter, and a little bit of flour to thicken it), cheap cuts of meat (when we had it), and various marginal dishes. I still have a taste for cheap foods, such as the sandwiches made with government cheese. (ISTR that we never really used dried/powdered milk. That was just a bridge too far for us.) Some time in the mid 60s our financial situation changed–we moved to a better house, had a significant change in the quality of our food, and had more affluence.

    For us it was the combination of living off the benefits of my father’s full employment and the increase in asset value from a GI/FHA mortgage, plus the very low costs of state college/universities in the 50s and 60s to where my father earned a Masters degree in mathematics & got a job working for aerospace in systems engineering as a manager, a job he held for 30 years until he retired with a full pension. Schools were cheap, housing was relatively cheap, health care expense were cheap–if you had the starting benefits of the GI bill and FHA mortgages, you essentially had a gigantic assist in building up wealth and comfort.

    The change, I think, was in the late 60s as the cost of maintaining the benefits started to rise, and states like California started cutting back on benefits such as low-cost tuition. I was able to go to state college for about $80-100 a semester (absent books), and my spouse went all the way through for her Masters with a total debt load of I think about $3000 for twelve years of university education (several degrees worth, not just a BA and a Masters).

    Weird how we saw such an explosion in wealth in the 50s and 60s with a vast outlay for education, and then we made the decision at the state and national level that education was “too expensive.”

    Now my children’s university debts, even after full tuition scholarships, hangs around like a bad penny, years after their earned their degrees.

    Of all the things that can help give a lift up, free or nearly free college and university education is one of the greatest things we can do, and in my opinion it’s one of the greatest things we did.

    1. Wow!!! I had no idea! What a difference a decade or so makes, huh? I went through school as we hit the “crisis” mode – I still vaguely remember the teacher strikes and 40 kids to a classroom. By the time I got there, education in California – at every level – was totally different, I think, than what you experienced. There’s also a huge difference in “how much difference” a college degree makes – and while it is more striking now than it was “in my day” – I think even by then, the degree was less of a “guaranteed upgrade” than it had been in earlier eras. But then – you have seen a little more of that than I – what do you think on that?

      1. I think a lot about education, and I want to scream in frustration how we make it so expensive, so debilitating in its debt, and how we are destroying higher education for all in order that the already rich and elite can continue their social and economic dominance.

        I don’t talk much about my friends outside the circles I’m in them — that is, I don’t talk about my writer friends with my cigar room friends or my school friends or whatever. I keep things kinda separate, and it’s for confidentiality and trust. So I won’t break that here. But I’ll just say that I have seen people from exceedingly dire backgrounds break through to become greatly successful due to education (and also happenstance on connections, to be honest)–and these people in many cases are still paying off their student loans even in their 30s and in some cases 40s. They are saddled with enormous debts in order to be successful, and I and my spouse have never really carried anything like that debt. Our largest debt is still our house, but since the 1980s we’ve never owned a car that we had payments on–we’ve always paid cash for what we could afford. Having a student debt in the six figures would mean that we would have been wedded to the payment life cycle.

        I am always, ALWAYS stupefied by people who vote for candidates and parties whose aim is to put more debt upon the poor and the middle class in order that the rich might be richer. It’s as if these people, with their crushing debts, think that such crushing debt is normal, and I am here to say that no, it is not. For me it is not so much the college degree as it is the fact that you can leave school to pursue your dreams without having to get an immediate job because you have to start repaying six figures to a bank with an inexorable demand for monthly payments.

  2. So how do we define “normal”?

    “The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages.”

    In the same article, they note that 23% say they carry no personal debt. That’s LESS THAN one in four.

    So for the vast majority of Americans, living in constant debt IS normal – or at least, the only normality they know.

    Is it possible that rather than “normal”, the word you were looking for was “reasonable”? It’s not reasonable that we create an economy in which your experience belongs to less then 1/4 of participants.

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