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It's time to focus on the needs of minority veterans

It's time to focus on the needs of minority veterans
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Thus far, 2020 has been a year of social unrest and, in the hopes of many, a year that will bring about systemic change. 

Issues relating to social justice for minorities have taken center stage in this regard, from the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., to seeking justice for Breona Taylor in Louisville, Ken., to the most recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.

As the public is learning, however, often with frustration, our governmental and political institutions are often slow to embrace change. Two examples of this can be seen in the collision of how we approach legislation and policy related to minority veterans' issues.

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Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) founded its Center for Minority Veterans at the direction of Congress in 1994, and minority veterans make up nearly a quarter of the total veteran population in the U.S., in a recent report, V.A. found that racial and ethnic disparities still exist within its healthcare system. 

Minority veterans, like minorities in the U.S. generally, have unfortunately faced decades of discrimination that has been reinforced through legislation and government policies. 

For example, although most associate the G.I. Bill with benefits that allowed veterans to prosper after World War II, the legislation was structured in such a way that, although not specifically excluding African-American veterans, in effect prevented them from accessing its benefits.

Specifically, southern democrats, including then-Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, John Rankin (D-Miss.), feared that returning black veterans would use their status as veterans to advocate against Jim Crow laws, and therefore advocated that the programs be administered by individual states instead of the federal government.

Similarly, some African-American veterans could not take advantage of the G.I. Bill or other V.A. benefits because minority veterans received dishonorable discharges at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.

This problem still exists today, as evidenced by recent testimony provided Lindsay Church, the Executive Director of Minority Veterans of America before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which noted that: "black service members were substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action, a key factor in the characterization of service of discharge paperwork."  

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The testimony concluded that: "Bad paper discharges compound the already unjust and inequitable social and structural conditions which categorically disadvantage minority veterans."

Moreover, a recent survey conducted of V.A. employees found that 78 percent of union members thought that racism was a problem at V.A., and 55 percent stated that they had witnessed racial discrimination against veterans. 

Although VA employees stated that they requested an Office of Inspector General Report to investigate racism at various V.A. facilities, no action was taken. 

The employees also requested that Congress hold a hearing on the subject and initiate its probe into racism at V.A.

Congress, however, is also an institution that is slow to embrace change and has grappled with its issues surrounding how to implement meaningful reform given the partisanship and divisions of its current members.

Although a hearing on minority veterans' issues, as requested by the minority V.A. employees, is a good place to start, it should be acknowledged as just that, a starting point. Unfortunately, across Congress, the average number of days per hearing topic has declined from several to just one, and often to only an hour or two per subject at best, which restricts members' ability to properly assess the scope of the issue and have meaningful dialogue offering possible solutions.

Indeed, over this past Congress, hearings before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee have lasted an average of about two hours and rarely have more than a handful of witnesses.

Importantly, however, Congressional committees, including HVAC, do have other options available beyond simply holding a single hearing that may or may not lead to change. 

One recent successful example is the Committee's handling of issues related to female veterans – which involved creating a bipartisan Women Veterans Task Force.  

The Task Force works "to increase the visibility of the two million women who have served in the U.S. military and promote inclusivity and equitable access to comprehensive healthcare, benefits, education and economic opportunity, and other federal resources, particularly at [V.A.]."

Stakeholders have praised the Task Force for tackling head-on issues that marginalize women veterans and address the inequities they endure. 

To this end, since minority veterans similarly face issues related to marginalization and inequality related to their service, and minority veterans represent a larger percentage of the current veteran population than female veterans, the Committee could create a similar task force to address issues related to minority veterans specifically. 

And, finally, the Committee could take things one step further by re-evaluating their Subcommittee structure and creating a subcommittee that is specifically devoted to minority and women veterans' issues. 

Currently, House Rule X limits most House Committees to five subcommittees, which the House Veterans' Affairs Committee already has. However, one of these subcommittees is an oversight subcommittee, and the rule allows for six when one of the designated subcommittees is designated explicitly for oversight.  Therefore, the Committee could take action and create an additional subcommittee, just as it did when it created the new subcommittee on electronic health record modernization in 2018.

As recently noted by the Government Accountability Office, subject matter that has been the topic of congressional hearings and other targeted oversight activity typically make the most progress in terms of implementing its recommendations, an argument that strongly favors the Committee creating an entity specifically devoted to minority veterans' issues. 

By 2040, minority veterans are projected to make up over 35 percent of all living veterans. With this perspective in mind, as well as the recent momentum acknowledging the need to correct our nation's history of systemic racism, the time is right for Congress to begin focusing on the unique needs of the minority veterans' population.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.