Charles Petzold

My White Privilege

June 19, 2020
Roscoe, N.Y.

The G.I. Bill figures prominently in my family history. The G.I. Bill is what allowed my father to go to college after serving in the South Pacific during World War II, and college is where he was educated as a mechanical engineer and where he met my mother.

The G.I. Bill — more formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — was signed into law by President Roosevelt. It was intended to provide benefits for veterans of World War II, including tuition for college and vocational training, mortgages, and low-interest business loans. Some 7.8 million veterans of World War II took advantage of the education benefit of the G.I. Bill. In giving an economic boost to veterans, the G.I. Bill helped foster the post-war boom.

College wasn’t necessarily in the future for my father. He grew up in Queens as the son of immigrants from Germany and Ireland, and he might have easily returned to Queens when he got out of the Navy in May 1946 at the age of 21. But my father’s cousin Bill Diehl convinced him to go to college. Bill Diehl had been in the Army Air Corps during the war and was already at the University of Missouri under the G.I. Bill, so that’s where my father went.

It was at the University of Missouri that my father met my mother, who had grown up in St. Louis and Little Rock. Both of my mother’s parents had graduated from the University of Kansas, and my grandfather worked as an engineer for what was then simply called “the telephone company.”

My parents got married in 1950 after they had both graduated, and moved to New Jersey, where they had three kids, including me. In the most trivial sense, if it were not for the G.I. Bill, I would not exist, but the chain of advantages triggered by the G.I. Bill go much deeper.

My father majored in mechanical engineering and got a job in New Jersey with Hercules Powder Company. By the 1950s, the company had gotten involved in plastics production, and my father became skilled at troubleshooting industrial machines. Although my father died at a young age, that heritage of engineering was a very strong influence on my life. Whether it came to me by nature or nurture, I still often think of myself as an engineer.

My Uncle Bill Diehl majored in creative writing and history. He moved to Atlanta, raised a family, and worked as a journalist and photographer at the Atlanta Constitution, and later, Atlanta magazine. Although we visited the Diehls in Atlanta only occasionally, I was always impressed by the idea of working as a writer. Much later, when Bill Diehl was about 50, he became a novelist. His first novel was Sharkey’s Machine, which was made into a movie directed by and starring Burt Reynolds.

One of my mother’s sorority sisters was a woman named Sylvia Toulouse, who married another guy from the University of Missouri named Bob Beason. They were both from the Midwest like my mother, but they also moved to New Jersey and later to a big farmhouse in Connecticut. We were family friends with “Uncle Bob” and “Aunt Sylvia” for many years when I was growing up. Throughout the 1960s, we alternated Thanksgivings at our house and at their house. Our two families drove together out to Missouri at least once, and we went to Expo 67 in Montreal with the Beasons.

Bob Beason was a journalist, and in 1961 (when I was 8 years old) he became editor of two magazines published by Fawcett Publications, Mechanix Illustrated and Electronics Illustrated. These magazines were quite important to me as I was growing up, and I cherished that personal connection. Mechanix Illustrated reviewed cars, and sometimes Uncle Bob would have a strange car that he was test driving, like a Model T or the James Bond Aston Martin.

But I was more interested in Electronics Illustrated, and that’s where I learned to build little electrical and electronics projects, as well as developing an interest in shortwave and ham radio. This issue from 1967 is perhaps typical. I think it was about that time that I took my ham radio novice license exam in the offices of Electronics Illustrated (I was WN2FVF for two years), and afterwards the guys took me out for lunch at the Algonquin, where the menu was so overwhelming that I ordered scrambled eggs.

The living room in the Beason’s house in Connecticut had a long table devoted entirely to high-end stereo equipment, including a fancy reel-to-reel tape deck. Bob Beason built Heathkits as part of his job. One time that we went up there, he was building a Heathkit TV. Of course, I eventually built Heathkits as well.

Unlike Popular Electronics, Electronics Illustrated didn’t quite catch onto the computer revolution; by 1972 it had become part of Mechanix Illustrated and then quietly faded out of existence.

I went to college to major in mechanical engineering like my father. Stevens Institute of Technology was the first college to require all freshmen to take a course in computer programming, so in the fall of 1971 I learned my first computer language, Fortran. I didn’t major in engineering, however. I switched to math instead and upon graduation in 1975, I got a job with New York Life Insurance Company as an Actuarial Student.

A few years later, in the late 1970s, I got back into building electronics by wiring together digital circuits to make electronic music instruments. I incorporated a Z-80 microprocessor into a big electronic music instrument, which led to a self-education in assembly language, and then personal computers.

When I walked into the offices of PC Magazine in 1984, it was not the first magazine office I had ever seen, and Bill Machrone was not the first magazine editor I had ever met. I also knew the writing style; I had been reading similar magazines for over 20 years. About 15 years later, I was able to fashion what I had learned about digital electronics and microprocessors into a book called Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.

This is why I have such a high regard for the G.I. Bill. It is impossible for me to imagine my life without the education my parents received at the University of Missouri, and the connections they made there with other high achievers.

About six years ago, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now-famous article in The Atlantic “The Case for Reparations.” (The essay is also part of Coates’ 2017 book We Were Eight Years in Power.) The subject of reparations is usually associated with compensation for slavery, but in this article, Coates focuses more on repairing the damage done by Jim Crow, and the long history of race-based policies that began after the 13th and 14th Amendments, some of which continue to this day.

I was following Coates’ argument on a rather intellectual and impersonal level until it collided with my family history:

The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits “that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.”

Kathleen Frydl’s book has more information about the education benefit offered by the G.I. Bill, and the article “Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill” published in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education is also helpful.

The law itself said nothing about race. In theory, it was race neutral. But the benefits were often administered by local VA offices, and these offices were run based on what were discretely called “local customs.” Black veterans were discouraged from pursuing higher education and often shunted into vocational training. Nor did black veterans get help from the two largest veteran organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Both organizations had an all-white membership, and encouraged segregation and discrimination against black veterans.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) benefited greatly by the G.I. Bill, to the extent that they quickly filled up their seats and had to implement waiting lists. But other colleges — even many in the north — were reluctant to admit black students. The college that my parents attended was the University of Missouri, which didn’t admit black students until it was forced to in 1950.

Particularly in the segregated south, public schools for black students were often underfunded and consequently didn’t adequately prepare their graduates for college. Colleges were also hesitant about educating black veterans in areas like engineering or journalism because everyone knew that they probably wouldn’t be able to get a job in those fields even with a degree.

This is how the long arms of Jim Crow reach perniciously into the present. The G.I. Bill benefited my family (and by extension, me) but in a racially discriminatory manner, which means that the benefits to me that accrued from the G.I. Bill can be categorized as “white privilege.” My white privilege.

This is not to disparage my own achievements. I took advantage of every situation offered to me, and I worked very hard. But I cannot deny that these achievements were built on a foundation of privilege — privilege that extends far beyond the particulars of my life that I've described here.

At the same time, I don’t feel at all guilty about this advantage because I didn’t do anything wrong. That is another characteristic of white privilege. It’s not something one strives for. It just falls into one’s lap solely by the circumstances of birth.

I know that some people continue to ridicule the very idea of white privilege, but perhaps they haven’t thought very much about it. Rather than scoffing at the concept, it will ultimately be much healthier for us as individuals (and as a society) to perform our own personal deep-dive searches into our lives to understand how white privilege has played a role in getting us where we are today.

Then maybe we can be in a position to think about how to repair the damage.