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Inside a Pioneering Lawsuit from the Black Veterans Project
If successful, an audacious group of veterans advocates could secure restitution for more than 100 years of harm.
America’s system of veterans’ benefits was first envisioned as a potent tool to forge equality. This idea dates to the Civil War, where 180,000 Black soldiers fought with the Union Army. Initially barred from serving, Black people enlisted immediately once President Abraham Lincoln opened the door in 1862, as the war intensified and white recruitment slowed. A key to their high enlistment was Frederick Douglass’s stated belief that it would be impossible for America to deny rights, respect, and full citizenship to any Black man who’d had “an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder.”
Douglass was partially right. The government did show appreciation to veterans of color. In a decision that was considered progressive for its time, Blacks who had served became eligible for the post-war healthcare and pension programs.
But Douglass may have been too hopeful. Many African Americans veterans were attacked specifically for their service to country. According to a 2016 report from the Equal Justice Initiative, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than Black veterans.”
In the intervening conflicts, Black Americans have continued to serve at high rates, then often struggled to be welcomed and provided the proper benefits. The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of Black soldiers in American history, and many were sent to the front lines. This resulted in massive Black casualty rates, with 25 percent of all combat deaths in 1965 hitting Black families. (Because Black service members are less likely to be made officers, they’ve long faced more danger than their white counterparts.) One in five Black veterans who made it out alive suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet more than 80 percent of them never sought mental health treatment at the VA. The reasons for this care deficit are numerous and include the department’s failure to educate returning veterans of color on the benefits owed them.
Yet the Black vets who sought help after Vietnam were often spurned. Such was the case with Ron Hill, who waited 43 years to secure disability benefits. “The way we were treated when we came home was different from white veterans,” Hill told a Pennsylvania newspaper in 2013. “Now that we’re older, we’re refiling (for benefits) because we want the injustice to be rectified. But VA hopes we die. They’re going to string us out because the older we get, the less likely they’ll have to pay us.”
This ugly history has yet to be fully reckoned with, in part because the country’s major veterans service organizations, like the American Legion, are historically white, and conservative. Things were wade worse under President Donald Trump’s VA Secretary, Robert Wilkie, an avowed loyalist to the confederacy. Under Wilkie, a nationwide survey of VA employees found that 76 percent had “experienced racially charged actions” on the job at the V.A.
Today, however, a relatively new organization — the Black Veterans Project (BVP) — is aggressively pushing for equity. Earlier this month, BVP sued the Department of Veterans Affairs to hand over a trove of complaint and claims data that could, for the first time, reveal the true extent of racial discrimination inside the federal government’s second largest agency.
“Generations of Black veterans have been denied benefits owed to them and their families for their service and sacrifice to our nation,” said BVP’s co-founder and executive director, Richard Brookshire in announcing the litigation, which was filed with the support of Yale Law School. “Acquiring this data is but a starting point for a public reckoning around racial inequity and the injustices faced by Black veterans across the United States.”
I recently caught up with Brookshire, a queer former Army medic, who shared his poignant service story with The New York Times last year. We spoke about the goals of the suit, his tactics for change, and the mostly white veterans organizing space. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Battle Borne: Just to start, since BVP is relatively new on the scene, can you talk about why you initially decided that an organization focused exclusively on Black vets was necessary?
Richard Brookshire: One, because I worked at what's considered to be one of the more progressive veteran organizations – IAVA — and they had a very superficial interest in having a conversation about racial justice. You know, we had had conversations about the Black Veterans Project actually folding into that organization. But there was essentially a disagreement about how we would split funds.
They wanted like a 60/40 profit share. And that would take significant money out of the very ambitious efforts that we have laid out, the work that we plan to do over the next few years.
Long story short: there have been Black Veteran organizations but they've largely work in and out of the local level. And they've almost exclusively focused on VA disability claims and service delivery, obviously, because there are such disparities amongst Black vets. What I noticed about three years ago what was there was no national organization that focuses specifically on racial justice and restitution.
When I talk about this project, it's not only about creating policy shifts. It’s about recognizing generations of discrimination in the military and the VA and having a much-needed reckoning. That just has not been a focus in any way, shape, or form at the more storied, largely white veteran organizations.
Another thing that I noticed was that there was not much significant reporting on the issues of racial disparities and inequities both in the military and on the veterans side. There was really no organization leading storytelling around these issues in a provocative way and also leading advocacy around this. So, when you don’t see what should exist, you create it. And that's what we did.
BB: Obviously, the Trump Administration was hostile to—
RB: Racist, yeah.
BB: Yes, racist. And hostile to really anyone who did not adhere to their white vision of America. Biden’s VA secretary, Denis McDonough has pledged to be more open to trans vets, Black vets. There's been a lot of signaling to show a newfound approach. Have you found that to be genuine?
RB: I haven't found it to be anything because I'm not engaging with the department directly. I mean, they've reached out; the White House’s liaison has reached out. But I’ve had no interest in engaging. Because we're an organization that seeks to force a provocative conversation. I think there has been too much emphasis paid to working in collaboration, versus being an accountability mechanism, both in the military and the VA. So, I've been very intentional about creating some level disconnect.
Now, I don't question their motivations to address racial inequity. But it’s a massive issue with major implications. Upwards of 80 percent of VA employees have witnessed racial discrimination occurring at the VA.
Just this afternoon, I was at the Manhattan VA in line behind an older Black veteran. He was probably in his 80s and was asking for a refill on his medication. He said his doctor had left the hospital, and they never assigned him a new one. And staff said that there was no prescription for him, and he has a heart condition. And within a few minutes, he essentially lost consciousness in front of me, and I was literally holding him. I'm a combat medic so, you know, combat medic mode kicked in and I had to call for people to come help him.
The only thing I could think in that moment is, there are a lot of vets that fall through the cracks. But this Black vet is representative of the plight Black vets face. It felt very symbolic for me to have been there, essentially making sure he's okay. He’s part of the generation we’re fighting for. We’re also fighting for the younger generations. We really want to make sure that we're addressing gaps in service.
Now, the VA is saying that they have this renewed emphasis on vets of color. That’s encouraging. I'll say that word. But I will also say that you can't move forward without reckoning with the past. And a reckoning requires some kind of accountability.
The VA is not going to do that, it’s not going to sue itself. So that’s what we’re doing here. This is the first step, honestly, to find a pathway for class-action litigation. That is something that Yale is very much attentive to, it’s something that we are laying the foundation for.
There's only been three successful class-action lawsuits against the VA. They mostly happened recently. I intend, over the course of however many years it takes, to work for a class-action suit for racial discrimination and benefit obstruction. And I intend to be successful around that. Without restitution, there is no reckoning because the generational harm has been done.
To be clear, we intend to actualize goals by being rabble-rousers, an accountability organization that is kind of on the outside of these edifices.
BB: Can you talk about the Black Veteran City Council?
RB: The Black Veteran City Council was founded out of a roundtable of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that convened last year. It was a roundtable for local, state, and national Black veterans’ organizations. Out of that has come this coalition. In about 10 months, we represent about 20,000 Black vets across the country. That’s intended to centralize advocacy on Capitol Hill.
As we move into the future on research, litigation, storytelling, we also are strengthening our advocacy component through this council.
BB: I think the only other question I have is what documents has the VA provided you so far? What haven't they provided you? And once you get everything you need, what is the next step? I know you talked about laying the groundwork for a class action. Are there other steps?
RB: The first thing is to decipher the data. The second thing, which will likely launch sometime in the late fall or early winter, is a national five-year Black veterans survey. The largest ever conducted. The idea is that we'll create our own data. And then from there, Yale will really guide the litigation path forward.
I can't predict exactly where that will lead. But the end result that we're trying to work towards to is some kind of pathway for class-action litigation. Our first step was to try to understand the issues today, we did a post 9/11 data around. We did a very quick rundown, just one year, and the highlights showed stark disparities.
We’ve asked VA for lots of raw aggregated data. We have to graph it, map it, we have to better understand where the gaps are because there might be particular VA's at the regional and local levels that might be problem areas. We might end up focusing on a particular hospital as soon as we get all the information.
BB: Okay, cool. And then actually one more thing before I let you go: I know you started the conversation talking about how IAVA wasn't totally open to partnering on Black veteran issues.
RB: They are not totally open to have a provocative conversation about race in the military. Now, it seems like it's politically convenient. So there’s been more discussion.
The honest truth is IAVA cater to a very particular segment of the veteran population, one that happen to be white, male, aggressive. But, I mean, mostly conservatives. So they felt that they would alienate the base of the veteran community by leaning too heavily into a conversation about race. Now, Jeremy [Butler, the organization’s first Black CEO] seems like he wants to insert themselves into a conversation to be somewhat relevant to the political environment. But they’re not undertaking the work, which could be very valuable.
BB: Yeah. And so, for my last question: have there been any other veterans service organization that, you know, now that the political winds are changing, have shown up in a real way for your organization? Anything beyond rhetoric?
RB: Protect Our Defenders and Pam Campos’ organization — Vets for the People. I think those are two organizations that we’re very much in partnership with. We're not waiting for white organizations; we are taking charge of the work that needs to be done on our behalf and we're doing that unapologetically and we're creating momentum and organizational structure.
There’s been some groups that have shifted rhetoric, or paid lip service. I think Veterans of Foreign Wars recently said they were committed to the issue of how racial prejudice may have precluded particular Black veterans from being recognized through top military medals. We appreciate that, that’s something.
But has anyone said, "We need to look squarely at the VA and start to think about how we do our own research to be an accountability mechanism and be a party on the work that you're doing"? No, that has not happened.