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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity -- The Long Shadow of the GI Bill: U.S. Social Policy and the Black-White Gap

June 23, 2008 // 3:00pm5:00pm

Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, speaker; commentators Jennifer L. Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University.

African-American students have lagged behind white students in SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) performance since the 1960s. While the gap has narrowed slightly in recent decades, it still persists. Speaking at the twenty-second program in the Division of U.S. Studies' New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity series, Professor Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. discussed his research exploring the possible correlation between a student's performance on the SAT and his or her having an ancestor who received benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights (Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944).

The Bill, which was designed to give World War II veterans access to vocational and higher education as well as home and small business ownership, had a direct impact on the socio-economic status of those veterans who were able to take advantage of it. Of the 7.8 million beneficiaries of the bill, only 450,000 were African American. They had to overcome not only the barriers they faced before they were allowed to join the segregated U.S. military during World War II but also hurdles that prevented many of them from accessing the benefits of the G.I. Bill. Once they had done so, however, they were able to create social wealth for themselves and their families.

Socio-economic status is a solid predictor of student educational performance. Tillery therefore conducted a pilot survey in 2007 to consider the question of whether the history of black exclusion from U.S. social policies in general, and the G.I. Bill in particular, affected successive generations black Americans' SAT results – a key determinant in college admissions. From his survey on seven college and university campuses of black Americans aged 18-40 with a veteran of World War II in their family lineage, Tillery found the G.I. Bill "to be a statically significant predictor of SAT performance." Moreover, the SAT score for these respondents was nearly eight times more likely to fall within the 1100-1300 range than that of black Americans without a G.I. Bill ancestor. That is the level at which students become serious candidates for admission by selective colleges. Having an ancestor who had benefited under the G.I. Bill proved to be a better predictor of SAT scores than his or her parents' education, income, or occupation.

Ira Katznelson commented that understanding the impact of targeted social intervention, such as that presented by the G.I. Bill, is important to the public debate about how to narrow the racial gap. In the decades beginning in the 1940s, he said, the Bill resulted in a transfer of $95 billion to World War II veterans – a sum larger than the $15 billion allocated to the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. It gave members of lower-income and middle-income classes access to home ownership, the single greatest source of family wealth. Although the Bill was race neutral as written, local governments and institutions were charged with its implementation. This meant that black G.I.s in the Jim Crow South had very limited access to the Bill's benefits when compared with their counterparts in other areas of the country, and black G.I.s everywhere in the country faced less access to benefits than did white G.I.s.

Jennifer Hochschild noted that while Tillery's work documents the remarkable multi-generational effect of the Bill, it also has disturbing implications about those not fortunate enough to have had the benefit in their family history. It is important, therefore, to consider to what degree other factors, such as home ownership, race, family structure, gender, age and cultural background contribute to school performance and high SAT scores. A similar survey of African Americans who are not in college would help flesh out Tillery's research. The seven colleges and universities studied by Tillery are white Northern institutions. The next stage of his research, he told the audience, will be a similar study of students in the historically black colleges and universities of the South.

This program was made possible by the generous support of Moses and Paula Boyd.


Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director of United States Studies 202-691-4147

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