The US Military’s Defense of Affirmative Action Is Hypocritical and Self-Serving

In the recent SCOTUS case on affirmative action, the US government argued for the importance of race-conscious admissions at its military academies. This isn’t about “racial justice”: the military wants to use race in admissions to strengthen American empire.

Cadets walk into Michie Stadium during West Point’s graduation ceremony on May 27, 2023 in West Point, New York. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The Supreme Court’s recent decision restricting race-conscious admissions has a notable carve-out for US military academies like West Point, which will be allowed to continue making admission decisions with the aim of creating a racially diverse student body. Many have pointed out the obvious inconsistency here, arguing that if affirmative action is good for the US military, it is good for civilian colleges as well. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “The majority recognizes the compelling need for diversity in the military and the national security implications at stake . . . but it ends race-conscious college admissions at civilian universities implicating those interests anyway.” Peter Dreier, writing in the Nation, expressed a sentiment common among liberals on social media: “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?”

But it is worth asking why the US military supports affirmative action, and what it means for the cause of racial justice. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) support for affirmative action is hypocritical and self-serving — and far from promoting racial justice, it helps perpetuate racial inequality and oppression both in the United States and abroad.

The amicus brief submitted by the US government in Students for Fair Admission v Harvard lays out the military’s case for affirmative action. First, the military cares about race in college admission decisions because it needs a diverse officer corps to command a racially diverse force of enlisted service members. Diversity has long been framed by the military as a “force multiplier,” meaning that it provides competitive efficiencies through the additional cultural and language skills of racially diverse military workers. Yet this force-multiplying diversity is confined to the lower ranks: according to the 2020 DOD Diversity and Inclusion Report, the enlisted are 18 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic, while only 8 percent of officers are black and 8 percent are Hispanic.

This is in line with a broader pattern. Although conservatives accuse it of being “woke,” the US military is profoundly shaped by racial inequality, with research documenting racial discrimination in promotions and military justice and racially unequal risk of PTSD, as well as a recent lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in access to veteran services. And it is hard to ignore proliferating reports of organized white supremacists in US military ranks.

The specter of Vietnam War–era “racial unrest” haunts the US government’s support for affirmative action in colleges. The amicus brief contains a list of examples of uprisings, revolts, and attacks on predominantly white military management by the more diverse lower ranks; the implication is that a more representative officer corps reduces such conflict and makes the military more effective.

But fifty years after the United States lost the Vietnam War, the officer corps has only slightly diversified, least of all in senior leadership. The amicus brief expresses concern that without affirmative action in university admissions, the officer corps will continue to be too white, which could in turn create the impression that non-white soldiers are “serving as ‘cannon fodder’ for white military leaders.” White officers would also lose the opportunity to be exposed to people of color in college, important to their supervisory skills.

The second reason that the military supports affirmative action in college admissions is attempting to increase recruitment. This is not surprising given the current recruitment crisis. Could a more diverse officer corps inspire more youth of color to join the military? Perhaps — although according to the DOD’s own polls, the top reasons that youth do not consider joining the military are the possibility of physical injury, death, or PTSD or other emotional and psychological issues.

The Supreme Court’s ruling lets the military academies keep affirmative action in admissions. But that is not enough for the armed forces, simply because these academies produce only 19 percent of officers. The rest come through civilian colleges. In fact, officers categorized as racial minorities are more likely to have gone through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs in civilian colleges. That is why the US military has been a defender of affirmative action at selective colleges like Harvard.

Beyond the fact that the institution of the military is rife with racial inequality, there is also what the military does in the rest of the world. The ongoing “war on terror” is one in which “terror” is associated with Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East, part of a long history of the United States targeting enemies construed as racialized others. Overseeing the largest military in the world, the diverse officer corps promised by affirmative action directs the destruction of infrastructure and communities, supervises the extraction of resources and destruction of the planet, and manages injury, disease, and death — most of which falls on people of color in the Global South.

The DOD’s consistent advocacy for race-conscious admissions is no social justice bona fide; in fact, it is entirely compatible with its being a fierce enemy of racial justice. Rather than celebrating the armed forces’ attempt to put a progressive sheen on its war-making, we should seek to end the mayhem they are responsible for abroad, and redirect resources to actually advancing the cause of economic and racial equality by providing for people’s urgent material needs.