Affirmative Action: Perfectly Fine for West Point and Annapolis—but Not Harvard

Affirmative Action: Perfectly Fine for West Point and Annapolis—but Not Harvard

Affirmative Action: Perfectly Fine for West Point and Annapolis—but Not Harvard

In a revealing footnote, Chief Justice John Roberts concedes that affirmative action has made our military stronger and more diverse.


The Republicans on the US Supreme Court believe that America needs more Black generals and admirals, but not more Black scientists, corporate executives, doctors, college professors, and lawyers.

That’s essentially what they said in their recent ruling, by a 6 to 3 margin, to prohibit the consideration of race as a factor in college admissions, overturning five decades of affirmative action policies that have resulted in a significant increase in Black students in the nation’s most selective colleges, graduate programs, and professional schools.

The six Republican justices claimed that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause requires colleges and universities to be “race neutral” in recruiting and admitting students. But the justices made an exception for the nation’s military academies, which include the highly selective Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.

In his opinion for the majority, hidden in a footnote, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “race-based admissions programs further compelling interests at our nation’s military academies.” According to Roberts, the military schools have “distinct interests” separate from those at other elite colleges and universities, although he failed to identify any such interests.

In her sharp dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote: “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.”

In a tweet, Representative Jason Crow from Colorado, who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger and was awarded the Bronze Star, wrote, “This decision is deeply upsetting but outright grotesque for exempting military academies. The court is saying diversity shouldn’t matter, EXCEPT when deciding who can fight and die for our country—reinforcing the notion that these communities can sacrifice for America but not be full participants in every other way.”

“Justice Jackson is right,” he added. “‘Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.’”

By carving out an exemption for military academies, the Republicans’ ruling exposed their outrageous hypocrisy and political leanings. Either the Constitution prohibits the use of race in college admissions or it doesn’t. It shouldn’t matter if a Black student is studying nuclear engineering or military history at the Naval Academy, Harvard, West Point, or MIT.

According to the conservative justices’ logic, it’s OK for military academies to identity prospective students by their race to prepare them for war and the national defense, but it’s unacceptable to use race to identify the nation’s future cancer researchers, business leaders, and university professors.

The ruling will certainly lead to a decline in the number of African Americans attending medical and nursing schools, whose graduates disproportionately serve in areas with significant Black populations. The same is true for Black law school graduates, who are more likely than their white counterparts to serve Black clients, dealing with unfair evictions, police abuse, job discrimination, pay inequities, and other injustices. The court decision will also hamper Blacks’ ability to attend selective colleges that produce many of the country’s professors and scientists.

In condemning the ruling, President Joe Biden pointed out that what’s good for the military academies is good for the larger society:

Colleges are stronger when they’re racially diverse, our nation is stronger. Just look at the United States military, the finest fighting force in the history of the world. It’s been a model of diversity, and it’s not only made our nation better, stronger, but safer.

Conservatives have long attacked affirmative action in college admissions for allegedly undermining merit as a standard for getting into the most selective institutions.

No more than 200 selective institutions (out of 2,830 four-year colleges and universities) have used affirmative action to diversify their student populations. Contrary to conservative claims, they have not admitted “unqualified” Black or Latino students ahead of “qualified” white or Asian students on the basis of race.

The Republican justices didn’t bother to ask why affirmative action undercuts merit at Amherst, Princeton, William and Mary, Yale, Holy Cross, Georgetown, Duke, and other selective schools, but not at the academies that focus on training the nation’s future military leaders.

Even many prominent former military leaders rejected the conservative justices’ argument. In an amicus brief, 35 ex-military brass, including Gen. Wesley Clark and four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on the Supreme Court to preserve affirmative action at all colleges and universities as well as at the military academies.

“History has shown that placing a diverse Armed Forces under the command of homogenous leadership is a recipe for internal resentment, discord, and violence,” they explained. “By contrast, units that are diverse across all levels are more cohesive, collaborative, and effective.”

They added: “Life and death missions conducted by these units require diverse skills, including foreign language competency and knowledge of other cultures, along with the ability to collaborate and culturally empathize with vastly different individuals.”

“Diversity in higher education leads directly to diversity in the officer ranks,” they noted. So overturning affirmative action at selective colleges would “impede our military’s ability to acquire essential entry level leadership attributes and training essential to cohesion.” That’s because, as General Clark explained to CNN, “about 70 percent of our officer corps comes through ROTC, through ordinary colleges. Some from Harvard, some from Princeton, and some from all over America.”

The US military is more reflective of the nation’s ethnic and racial diversity than other institutions. Blacks make up 13.6 percent of the nation’s population and 17 percent of its military force. But military and civilian leaders have long been concerned that Blacks are underrepresented among the military’s leadership ranks, from junior officers to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For example, only two of the 41 four-star generals and admirals (4.8 percent) are Black. Affirmative action has helped reduce but not erase that gap. According to The Wall Street Journal, Blacks currently comprise 12 percent of students at West Point, 9 percent at Annapolis, and 14 percent at the Air Force Academy.

And if the six Republican justices are truly concerned about the nation’s military readiness, they overlooked the reality that the Department of Defense and its branches outsource a great deal of their scientific and social research as well as strategic analysis to partners in universities, think tanks, and private businesses, whose employees come from the ranks of our nonmilitary colleges.

The six Supreme Court Republicans failed to even ask a basic question: If racial diversity is good for the leadership of the nation’s military, why isn’t it also good for the country’s other core institutions, including health care, business, education, law, science, the media, and the arts?

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