How to Honor and Show Support to Black Veterans in 2023
Updated: Mar 29
According to a 2020 study by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families, 91% of surveyed Black and African American veterans reported that military service had a positive impact on their life. In recognizing the numerous contributions of African Americans during this Black History Month, we should also aim to honor the service of Black veterans and find ways to show support to them in civilian life throughout 2023.
Overall, Black veterans enjoy a higher quality of life than Black non-veterans, and many go on to work in security occupations, education, or serve their communities as mentors and local business owners. Still, historical inequities and discrimination have impacted the lives of numerous Black veterans, particularly in relation to accessing benefits and transitioning from the military. In this article, we will explore the following topics:
How many Black veterans are there?
The U.S. Armed Forces offer opportunities to Americans of all backgrounds, and our nation's veteran population reflects this more and more. There are currently an estimated 2, 034,818 Black or African American veterans, with the majority living in Georgia, Texas and Florida.
African Americans have fought in every military conflict in U.S. history, even as they experienced segregation, systemic discrimination, and were even denied rights and benefits upon exiting or retiring from service. More than 200,000 African Americans served in the U.S. military forces during the Civil War; over 400,000 served during World War I; and over 900,000 served during World War II.
Although less than 10% of World War II veterans were minorities, since then, each cohort has been more diverse than the last. Of those who have served since the 9/11 attacks, 35% are minorities; with Black veterans making up 15% of post-9/11 veterans and around 12% of the veteran population overall.
In general, there are many promising trends among African American/Black veterans despite discrimination they could potentially face. According to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families 2020 survey, 89% believe that joining the military was a good decision.
Moreover, 54% said that military service prepared them for their civilian career. The majority also believe their time in service helped them strengthen useful skills such as teamwork (91%), work ethic and discipline (89%), leadership and management capabilities (83%), mental toughness (81%), and professionalism (80%). Black veterans’ earnings are higher on average than Black non-veterans, and their top professional industries include service and security occupations, transportation, management, business, and education.
What unique challenges have Black veterans faced?
One of the greatest challenges Black veterans have faced historically is being denied access to benefits, particularly after World War II. Upon returning home from the war, many Black veterans didn't receive the benefits outlined in the original G.I. Bill — also known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — that expired in July 1956. This included “low-cost mortgages, high school or vocational education, payments for tuition and living expenses for those electing to attend college, and low-interest loans for entrepreneurial veterans wanting to start a business.”
The bill was intended to help provide economic stability and leverage for World World II veterans, but African Americans were often discriminated against in the implementation of this assistance. By the time the initial bill ended in 1956, 4.3 million home loans had been given out and close to 8 million World War II veterans received subsidized education or training. Yet most Black veterans had been left out of these benefits.
For example, over the period covered in the original G.I. bill (1944 to 1956), African American veterans were often unable to acquire the low-cost mortgages, which allowed veterans to purchase homes in the suburbs whose value would rise significantly in the decades ahead. While this benefit helped create wealth for white veterans in the post-war era, Black veterans were not able to take advantage of this benefit because banks would not offer loans for mortgages in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Furthermore, they were discouraged from purchasing homes in suburban, mostly-white neighborhoods at the time.
Unemployment benefits are another example of how the law was not implemented fairly for Black veterans. Through the G.I. Bill, veterans were guaranteed one year of unemployment compensation with the stipulation of being available until a job offer was extended. Yet post-war, many industries would only hire African Americans for low-wage jobs. When these lower wages were turned down by Black veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be informed without context that they were offered a job and did not take it, leading the VA to terminate their unemployment benefits.
Brandeis Institute for Economic and Racial Equity examined the impact of these discrepancies in its March 2022 interim study of the G.I. Bill. It found racial discrimination in implementing the law ultimately “contributed to the racial wealth gap” seen in the socioeconomic realities of today. The report estimates African American veterans received only 40% of the value of benefits that white veterans received. And while the bill’s benefits led to an annual average increase in income of $16,000 for white veterans, Black veterans’ income increases were not comparably or statistically significant.
The VA is taking steps to address these inequities, with more programs and resources dedicated to informing Black veterans and other minority groups of their benefits, such as education and training, home loans, disability compensation, pension plans, and health care.
Current Challenges for Black Veterans
Black Veteran Homelessness: Despite playing such an admirable role in society, a significant number of veterans experience homelessness in proportion to the general population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates an average of 40,056 veterans are homeless each night, and while only 7% of the general population claim veteran status, they represent 13% of the homeless adult population. Notably, Black Americans overall disproportionately experience homelessness, representing just 12% of the total U.S. population yet 37% of all people experiencing homelessness. There is a similar pattern among Black veterans:They are 12% of the U.S. veteran population, yet 34% of veterans experiencing sheltered homelessness and 26% of veterans experiencing unsheltered homelessness. This is often attributed to affordable housing shortages, unaddressed mental health needs, lack of support networks, or unawareness of federal benefits. Organizations like the Black Veterans Project offer resources and support for Black veterans facing homelessness.
Transitional Challenges: Transitioning from the military and shifting from service-related responsibilities to the demands of civilian life can be a challenge for any service member. African American and Black veterans surveyed by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families said that securing a job (62%); navigating VA programs, benefits, and services (58%); financial struggles (44%); and managing depression (38%) were among their top difficulties. Notably, more Black and African American respondents (55%) described their financial transition as “difficult or very difficult” compared to white veterans (48%). The majority of Black and African American veterans indicated that their employment transition (59%) was “difficult or very difficult” as well, compared to white veterans (49%). Not only do veterans, in general, need a more comprehensive approach to transition assistance, but Black veterans and other underserved groups must receive tailored support that addresses their unique needs.
Economic and Health Inequities: According to RAND, military service is associated with “more-positive life outcomes and better economic prospects for Black Americans,” including “higher income, improved ability to cover costs of medical and dental care, higher rates of homeownership, and decreased reliance on food assistance programs.” However, though Black veterans often fare better than Black non-veterans in a number of socioeconomic areas, they have yet to achieve economic equity with their white counterparts. Additionally, Black veterans have higher odds than Black non-veterans of experiencing chronic pain, hypertension, high cholesterol, and work-related limitations, which the study attributes to conditions and circumstances surrounding their military service. This underscores the need to ensure Black veterans have access to proper, evidence-based care.
How can we honor and support Black veterans in 2023?
While Black veterans are experiencing positive life outcomes in many areas, there remain inequities that have been fueled by historic discrimination. As individuals, we can call attention to the issues impacting Black and underserved veterans groups by contacting our congressional representatives. Consider writing an email, letter, or tagging your representatives in a social media post that raises awareness around the disproportionate levels of homelessness and transitional difficulties Black veterans are facing.
Mission Roll Call (MRC) is committed to amplifying the voices of underserved veterans groups in Washington with the goal of ensuring access to benefits and quality care. Encourage Black veterans you know to share their story with MRC, as we work to present the unfiltered, unified voice of veterans across America to our nation’s leaders and lawmakers.
The U.S. veteran community is diverse, reflecting the many ethnicities and identities that make up our great country. Black Americans have played a crucial role in the U.S. Armed Forces throughout history — helping to secure our freedoms, breaking down racial barriers, and inspiring our democracy to better live up to its ideals. Black veterans have furthered this impact in life after service as well, so much so that community leaders in Buffalo, New York, unveiled a monument honoring African American veterans in September 2022. And though there is a long way to go to rectify historical inequities, the future holds hope.
As we observe Black History Month, let’s make it a point to recognize the immense contributions of Black service members and veterans while also looking for ways to support them this year.