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    Tuesday, April 23, 2024

    Critical race theory is a needed, overdue perspective

    Illustration by M. Scott Byers

    I was glad to see The Day's June 9 editorial − "A new strawman, but same old tactic" − on critical race theory. This approach is not an attempt to make white students feel bad about their race. Nor is it, as Florida's statewide ban on critical race theory alleges, a bid to "distort historical events." Rather, it takes an overdue look at history, government policies and their implementation to examine their impacts on the present day. And any sentient being knows that the color of one’s skin in the United States has traditionally been either an advantage or an obstacle.

    My family is white. My mother was born to a working-class, family in Buffalo. Her Army service in World War II enabled her to attend college on the GI bill, a transformative, 1944 law. It offered to pay for college tuition, books and provide a stipend to millions of returning veterans while they attended school. This law changed my mother’s life, and the lives of her six children.

    The law was color blind as written but not in implementation. Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin and his segregationist allies stripped federal control and oversight from the proposed law and ensured that local Veterans Administration officials would be gatekeepers, controlling who got the benefits. Black veterans were just as entitled to federal support to attend college as white veterans, but too often, local officials just said no. The result was predictable. Half of white veterans of WWII went to college on the GI bill. Less than 30% of Black veterans did.

    Low-interest VA loans to WWII veterans followed the same local control. Banks controlled who would get the loans. Most wouldn’t lend to people of color. In the summer of 1947, the state of Mississippi was half Black. Yet of 3,000 VA home loans issued to veterans only two of these loans went to Black veterans, wrote scholar Edward Humes in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Autumn, 2006). Redlining − the practice of banks refusing loans to people, mostly minorities, living in certain neighborhoods − became illegal 50 years ago. But the impact continues.

    When the Social Security Act passed in 1935, that law was also technically color blind. But it excluded domestic and farm workers, occupations that employed 65% of Black Americans. The same provision excluded 27% of the white workforce. Domestic work was covered in 1950. But what was the economic impact on Black Americans in the 20th century with a 15-year delay in accumulating payments to Social Security, payments which would then have been reflected in a higher monthly retirement income?

    Homeownership, college education, financial support in retirement, all add security and intergenerational wealth. And all were significantly less available to Black Americans because of policy exclusions or implementation. The cumulative results speak for themselves.

    With two parents who had attended college, all six of their kids did, too. When my parents died, the sale of the family home and the small inheritance it provided helped me buy my own home. My education helped me earn more than I would have otherwise. When my children attended college, they graduated virtually debt-free.

    That is rare for Black Americans, 85% of whom accumulate debt to attend college because their families are less likely to be in a financial position to help. Ten years after completion of a bachelor’s degree in 2008, Black college graduates had borrowed an average of $62,824 to pay for college.The average white graduates borrowed $34,717. Ten years after graduation, 67% of white graduates owned homes; 47% of Black graduates did. And, most damning of all, 10 years after college graduation, over one third (37%) of Black bachelor’s graduates had negative net worth and 29% said they had difficulty meeting monthly expenses, contrasted with 18% of white graduates with negative net worth and 11% who said they had trouble meeting expenses. These statistics are all from page 174 of the 2021 Indicators of Higher Education Equity, Historical Trend Report, compiled by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education.

    Critical race theory threatens many because it dares to measure the impact of government policies on the present. Yet it may well help us avoid perpetuating past mistakes. It is long overdue.

    Maura Casey is a past associate editorial page editor of The Day and a former editorial writer for The New York Times. She lives in Franklin.


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