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Racial affirmative action at West Point is different than at other colleges

Michael Aronson, New York Daily News on

Published in News & Features

It was just a footnote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority decision barring race-based affirmative action admissions, but it goes to the heart of what’s frustrating about the ruling.

At the bottom of page 22, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “The United States as amicus curiae contends that race-based admissions programs further compelling interests at our Nation’s military academies. No military academy is a party to these cases, however, and none of the courts below addressed the propriety of race-based admissions systems in that context. This opinion also does not address the issue, in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

In other words, neither Harvard nor the University of North Carolina nor their private and public university peers could use race as a factor in trying to build a diverse student body — to do so violated the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection — but West Point, Annapolis and Air Force could keep on doing so. Diversification efforts could continue at the military’s institutions of higher education even as they were struck down at all others. Why? Because.

We’d far prefer class-based affirmative action to a preference system rooted in race and believe it could achieve similar results, the laudatory goal of racial diversity in a college student body.

Now Roberts’ frustrating legal punt is being challenged, with the very plaintiffs who challenged Harvard now asking the court to extend its prohibition on considering race in admissions to the military’s service academies. A better question is why the military’s compelling interest in nurturing diversity, to which the court showed deference in its June ruling, wasn’t taken more seriously in the civilian context.


As the federal government put it in its amicus brief to the Supreme Court before it rendered its decision gutting race-based affirmative action:

“Approximately 19% of military officers come from the service academies. Each service academy has concluded that a diverse student body is essential to preparing cadets to be effective military leaders. ‘Diversity,’ as the Air Force Academy has put it, ‘is a military necessity.’ Likewise, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has concluded that ‘its ability to leverage diversity across the spectrum’ is critical to the strength of ‘the cohesive teams that are foundational to Army readiness….An Army not representative of the nation risks becoming illegitimate in the eyes of the people.’…The U.S. Naval Academy has similarly concluded that ‘[a] diverse workforce is a force multiplier required to maintain maritime superiority and dominance on the battlefield.’

“The Air Force, Military and Naval Academies, along with the Coast Guard Academy, all currently employ holistic recruiting and admissions policies that consider race — along with many other factors — in an individualized review of applicants…The service academies have carefully considered potential race-neutral alternatives, but have concluded that, at present, those alternatives would not achieve the military’s compelling interest in fostering a diverse officer corps.”

Those charged with protecting America from foreign threats understand full well that there are serious, negative consequences of minting an officer corps that fails to reflect the enlisted diversity, not to mention the nation. It’s a crying shame that the six conservatives who signed onto the majority ruling didn’t see the analog in the rest of higher education, which mints those who lead the nation in nearly every other sphere.

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