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Veterans Affairs has denied benefits to Black people at higher rates for years, lawsuit alleges

Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic sued in federal court on behalf of a Vietnam War veteran alleging he was denied benefits because he is Black.
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 2019.
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 2019.Graeme Sloan / Sipa via AP file

Obtaining benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs has been disproportionately more difficult for Black Americans for decades, a federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges.

“The results of VA’s racial discrimination has been to deny countless meritorious applications by Black veterans, depriving them and their families of care and support that their faithful service has earned,” the lawsuit reads.

Filed in federal court by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic on behalf of Conley Monk Jr., a Vietnam War veteran, the suit claims Monk was repeatedly denied home loan, education and medical benefits because he is Black.

Monk is far from alone, the filing alleges. According to VA records obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation brought by the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, of which Monk is the co-founder and director, and the Black Veterans Project, the average denial rate for disability compensation was 5.3% higher for Black veterans than their white counterparts between 2001 and 2020. And the racial disparity for average acceptance rates was even higher —  6.8%.

“They failed to redress longstanding, pervasive race discrimination and disparate impacts of which they knew or should have known,” the suit reads.

Adam Henderson, one of the Yale Law School student interns working on the case, said their legal team has three goals: obtaining reparations for Monk, getting Veterans Affairs to listen, and creating a better legal pathway for other Black veterans to get justice.

“We hope that going forward, there won’t be another generation of veterans who are subjected to the same system,” Henderson said.

In a statement, Veterans Affairs press secretary Terrence Hayes acknowledged the “unacceptable disparities in both VA benefits decisions and military discharge status due to racism” — adding that the department is studying the role race plays in benefits decisions and that results will be published as soon as they are available.

“We are actively working to right these wrongs,” he said. “We are taking steps to ensure that our claims process combats institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it.”

At a press conference Monday after the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spoke to the disproportionate denial of benefits for Black veterans and called for answers.

“We know the results,” he said. “We want to know the reason why.”

Both Henderson, who is Black, and Mike Sullivan, another Yale Law School student intern working with the clinic on Monk’s case, said they each found special meaning in helping Monk. “It’s really like serving a brother,” said Sullivan, who enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school.

Henderson, though, said that there’s still much to be done.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The clinic and Mr. Monk will continue to fight every step of the way.”