Affirmative Action—but Only for Military Academies

Affirmative Action—but Only for Military Academies

Affirmative Action—but Only for Military Academies

In a footnote, the Supreme Court directs Black and brown advancement away from civilian universities and into a uniform.


When Chief Justice John Roberts issued his decision to kill affirmative action, he added, in a footnote, a revealing caveat. Race-based considerations can no longer factor into college admissions—except at US military academies.

My Nation colleagues are better equipped than I am to examine Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard as a matter of law, politics, and history. But as a “national security” reporter, I’m compelled to call attention to the purposeful perversity of preserving affirmative action only for the institutions that produce the next generations of military leadership.

Roberts snuck into a footnote that the majority’s opinion “does not address the issue” of “race-based admissions further[ing] compelling interests at our Nation’s military academies.” Roberts did not feel compelled to address the “potentially distinct interests” the military possesses in affirmative action, let alone contextualize them within the court’s reasoning, and hand-waved it away as unnecessary because “no military academy is a party to these cases.”

It was appropriately cowardly for a footnote to be the scene of the majority’s euphemistic mumble that the military might have a compelling interest in replenishing its junior-officer corps beyond white applicants. It’s a way to hide the fact that the military sees affirmative action as a driver of merit, cohesion, and performance—a fact that immediately undermines the court’s reasoning. If affirmative action benefits national security, which is the core of the military’s position, then it makes no sense to consider affirmative action harmful or discriminatory in the less-life-or-death circumstances of civilian college admissions. At a minimum, the military’s position reveals the absurdity of contending that the 14th Amendment prohibits race-conscious admissions at Harvard but not at West Point.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor spared a moment in her dissent to address the majority’s military exception. She raised it as a false distinction, since “national security issues are also impacted at civilian universities.” Anyone even passingly familiar with the symbiosis of the US military and the US academy, an arrangement dating back to the World War II–era National Research Defense Committee and accelerating through the Cold War, will recognize the flimsiness of the majority’s distinction. If not, Malcolm Harris’s recent book Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and The World has as a major theme Stanford University’s crucial, ongoing, and lucrative partnership with the Pentagon.

The ridiculousness of the distinction pays tribute to its ultimate effect. Whatever the justifications the majority offers, its result will be to further reduce access to higher education for Black and brown students, and accordingly from what remains of an already-precarious middle class. In such a context, to retain affirmative action for the service academies will incentivize routing Black and brown peoples’ aspirations for material advancement into places like the service academies and military careers during a time when the perpetual wartime footing of the War on Terror is blurring into one premised on a new Cold War with China. “The Court has come to rest on the bottom-line conclusion that racial diversity in higher education is only worth potentially preserving insofar as it might be needed to prepare Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities for success in the bunker, not the boardroom,” dissenting Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson observed.

The majority opinion repackages a reactionary offer, best parodied by the director Paul Verhoeven in his classic movie Starship Troopers, that military service guarantees citizenship—except, since the US doesn’t like to do social guarantees, it’s more like service offers a shot at prosperity as other avenues get blocked off. The offer is fundamentally a scam. While the military has expanded its non-white admissions to the service academies over the past generation, the further you go up the ranks, the whiter it gets. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, as of 2018, the enlisted ranks were about 30 percent non-white, but the officer corps were only 20 percent non-white. About 90 percent of generals and admirals were white. As in much of the American racial compact, service is one thing, senior leadership quite another.

But we should be wary of so-called national security justifications for retaining affirmative action. The point of highlighting the court’s reasoning is to show its inconsistency, not to reify the idea that affirmative action’s value derives from its utility to national security. To accept that argument—and it’s bleak to consider that future attempts at challenging Students for Fair Admissions might find it useful to do so—is to forget that Starship Troopers is a parody, not a prescription. After 40 years of the Cold War and 20 years of the War on Terror, the United States is already too far down the road of treating military interests as distinct from and superior to civilian ones—to the point where Roberts can squeeze such treatment into a euphemistic footnote and expect his audience to nod along at what he says between the lines.

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