04 October 2013

Doing the Math at the World War II Memorial

After the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives shut down the federal government this week, the World War II Memorial in Washington became a battlefield for camera-hungry Republican legislators. National Park Service sites aren’t essential to people’s health and safety, and that memorial therefore closed after the Republicans refused to pass a budget or a continuing resolution free of extraneous provisions.

A charitable organization called Honor Flight had already flown some aged WW2 veterans to Washington to visit the site. When those vets arrived, some Republican legislators were on hand to move aside barriers. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) established the first sentence of his obituary by berating a polite park ranger for following her instructions to keep people out of the closed site. That was one day after Neugebauer had gone on the radio to boast about the shutdown.

As many people noted, Neugebauer was thus helping to close government sites and blaming the federal employee who therefore received the assignment to keep one site closed. That park ranger was working without pay while Neugebauer, through a legislature quirk, continues to receive his salary.

There’s another element of that conflict that I haven’t seen discussed. The first veterans to visit the memorial on Tuesday were a group from Mississippi. Before every Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight trip from that state, the Gulf Live blog has profiled all of the veterans participating. Here are their photographs, starting with men on a 2012 flight and then the men (and one woman) who flew to Washington this fall.

I can’t help but notice that every single veteran on those flights from Mississippi appears to be white. Surely there are black veterans from Mississippi. The 2010 census found that 37% of Mississippi’s population is African-American. Back in 1940, just before the US entered WW2, that percentage was even higher: 49% black. [I’d link to the US Census Bureau, but the shutdown means its website can’t offer any useful information. Those figures come from a news article and a book.] Some of those Mississippians must have served the US during WW2.

If one were to choose 83 Mississippians randomly today, the odds of getting a group with no African-American in it are .63 to the 83rd power, or about .000000000000002%. So it seems significant that Honor Flight has not brought a single African-American veteran to Washington from Mississippi.

I’m not saying that anyone involved in the charity deliberately discriminated against black veterans. There are many factors that could contribute to the lack of African-Americans on those flights: discrimination by military recruiters, migration out of and into the state, life and health expectancies, the social networks that recruited vets for these flights, and so on. Sadly, all of those factors have some link to America’s history of anti-black bigotry, a topic today’s right wing tries hard to deny and yet fuels OIP Derangement Syndrome.

I looked at some other photos of the confrontations at the WW2 memorial, which involved veterans from other states. I didn’t see any African-American WW2 veterans in those pictures, but I’d be pleased to be pointed to pertinent examples. Only the Mississippi contingent had been systematically profiled by the press back home, allowing this analysis.

What does that reality mean for the Republican in Congress who went to the memorial and insisted those veterans get to visit? They were willing to slow America’s economic recovery from the worst crisis since the Great Depression; to stop pay for hundreds of thousands of workers; to shut down information for the public; and to halt funds for medical research, early childhood education, and other important government functions. But they wanted to be seen making sure the hard consequences of their vote didn’t inconvenience a group of old white men (and one woman). They were playing to the cameras, and playing to their base.

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