The US military was deployed, the Bush Administration tells us, to bring democracy to Iraq. But the military brass and the Administration have apparently parted company on what democracy means in the United States, as the Supreme Court arguments on April 1 in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases made clear.
Solicitor General Ted Olson, arguing on behalf of the Administration, attacked the Michigan law school admissions program as “constitutionally objectionable” for naming racial diversity as a goal, “an end in and of itself,” in admissions. Several Justices quickly interrupted, directing Olson’s attention to the “military brief” filed in the case.
In that brief, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former defense secretaries and retired heads of the military academies endorsed affirmative action as essential to national security in a multiracial democracy. “The military,” they said, “must be permitted to train and educate a diverse officer corps” to circumvent the morale problems and communication bottlenecks of the Vietnam era, when a virtually all-white officer corps commanded large numbers of black and Latino troops.
The military brass were clear on this: Democratic authority, and thus military effectiveness, depends upon admissions procedures that recruit and select a diverse group of potential leaders. Democracy as a whole, like national security in particular, depends upon genuine, representative leadership throughout the ranks.
The mission of public colleges and universities is also a democratic one: to train leaders who can work with diverse groups of people, to provide students the skills to participate in civic life, and to encourage graduates to give back to the community, which, through taxes, made their education possible. To perform this democratic mission, public colleges must be able to select a racially, ethnically, geographically and economically diverse class of students who will enhance the educational environment while they are in school and contribute to the public good after they graduate.
The Solicitor General and other opponents of affirmative action treat admissions decisions to public colleges and law schools as if scarce slots can be allocated based on individual merit unrelated to the sacred democratic values that are at stake. And whenever race becomes an issue, a multifaceted, democratic view of merit suddenly collapses into a fealty to a “neutral” testing regime.
In fact, SAT and ACT scores often measure little more than the social capital students bring to a single, timed test. The relationship of scores to parental wealth far exceeds the relationship between test scores and grades in college or success after graduation. Poorer students and students of color, who on average perform less well on these standardized tests than their richer and whiter peers, can do just as well academically and professionally when given the chance. Evidence from Texas shows that those admitted because they graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class have higher grades as college freshmen than those who are admitted based on their test scores. Even more important, a study of Michigan’s graduates found the black and Latino lawyers were those most likely to serve underrepresented communities and to fulfill public citizenship obligations generally. Students with the highest test scores, by contrast, are less likely to give back to the community that subsidized their education. Apparently high scores communicate a sense of entitlement without responsibility.