The Drug Policy Alliance Conference included a Town Hall Meeting on “The Case for Reparations: 50 Years After the Drug War and Mass Incarceration, What Does America Owe Us? Ira Glasser, board chair of the DPA and one of the panelists, argued that the GI Bill of Rights offers both a model and a cautionary tale in considering reparations as a response to the War on Drugs. Here are excerpts from his remarks.
The War on Drugs is just the latest form of racial subjugation. We’re talking really about the history of 300 years, and there is no way of talking about repairing harm without talking about all of that. When you get to get this age, you get to be a historian. When you start talking about things, you find out that nobody knows anything. They’re not coming from the same place you’re coming from and they’re not sharing the same premises because they don’t share the same facts.
People don’t know what the GI Bill of Rights did. It provided tuition for college, high school, vocational school, training schools. It provided living expenses for people going to school. It provided low-cost loans without a down payment, low-cost mortgages without a down payment for people to buy homes when they came back from the war. It provided low-cost loans for people to start businesses, credit for people to start businesses, for people who had no assets.
And it didn’t do that with a means test. They did it for everyone. Because everybody had suffered the disadvantage, everybody was going to get the repair. And they didn’t do it just for the people who were in combat. They did it for people who were on active duty for 90 days or more. 90 days!
And you compare what that repair was targeting with what we’re talking about and you have to conclude that if it was a moral obligation to pass the GI Bill of Rights, that moral obligation is multiplied by a factor of thousands for the people we’re talking about.
This [case] has never been made to the white liberal audience who thinks they’re with us. They don’t know about it. You have to get past their sense of defensiveness. They feel like you’re accusing them of racism when you tell them they have a moral obligation.
They wouldn’t feel that way if they had had an accident in a car. The idea of repairing the damage that the state of official law and policy has done is not an alien concept. It’s established in our country. It’s established in our culture. It’s established in our law. So you have to ask yourself: why is it received so radically? It’s racism in this context. And the answer has to be that it is very different when you’re talking about people of darker skin color.
One more thing. In order to get the GI Bill passed, Congress needed the votes of southern Democrats. This is 1945–46. And in order to get it passed, part of the way it was passed was the understanding that the federal government would get it passed, but it was going to be administered locally. Local white folks would get to decide who got these benefits.
There were 67,000 mortgages enabled by the GI Bill of Rights in the first year after it was passed, and fewer than 100 went to people who were not white. There were 100,000 people in the first year, black people, who applied for the education benefits. Fewer than 20% got them.
Looking at the GI Bill of Rights, you get a rationale for what we’re trying to move toward that’s very powerful and compelling. But at the same time, the way the GI Bill of Rights was administered and played out describes the problem that we have even with the white liberal audience of people that we think should be with us. We need to find a way to translate that sense of moral obligation to them even if they are not racists.