The U.S. military learned a valuable lesson about race during the Vietnam War: Diversity doesn’t happen without positive action. It helps explain why a distinguished group of 35 military officials wrote a Supreme Court brief supporting the use of race in college admissions — as the U.S. military has done at its four academies. of service over the past 50 years.
While the Supreme Court has agreed in the past that racial diversity on college campuses is an important goal, the problem is how to achieve that goal without using race as a factor.
In two cases that are expected to determine the fate of affirmative action programs across the country, the court heard oral arguments on October 31, 2022, which could end the use of race as one of many factors in university admission decisions.
The questions from the judges reflected the ideological divisions within the court. Conservative justices argued that race-based admissions policies had no definite endpoint.
“I don’t see how you can say the program will ever end,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas got straight to the point in his questions. “I might be deaf when it comes to all this other stuff that’s going on on campus, feeling good and stuff,” he told one of the affirmative action lawyers. . “I’m really interested in a simple thing: what academic advantages are there to your definition or the diversity that you affirm?”
In stark contrast, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor reminded the court that diversity has been considered a matter of national importance in previous rulings and that without such programs, the number of historically disadvantaged candidates drops dramatically. “What we know,” Sotomayor said of the nine states that tried to drop affirmative action programs, “in all of them, white admissions either stayed the same or increased. And clearly, in some institutions, the number of underrepresented groups has dropped dramatically, right? »
In my opinion, as a scholar of the history of affirmative action, military officers argue that diversity is a matter of life and death. The officers argued in their brief that preventing universities from considering race in admissions risked sowing “internal resentment, discord and violence” at a time when “diversity is imperative in the relationships of our with international allies and complex global challenges”.
Additionally, military leaders argued that reversing affirmative action would harm the hugely successful talent pool that the officer corps has built directly through the military academies and indirectly through the university programs of the ROTC.
This is not the first time former military officials have spoken out on affirmative action. They did in the 2003 case against the University of Michigan Affirmative Action Program in Grutter vs. Bollinger. “The importance of maintaining a diverse and highly skilled officer corps has been indisputable for decades,” the military officials wrote at the time.
Indeed, in 1962, as American involvement began to grow in Vietnam, black officers made up only 1.6% of the officer corps. Military academies remained virtually segregated, with blacks making up less than 1% of enrollees. As a result, the number of black officers did not increase much.
Over the next five years, the number of black soldiers fighting and dying on the front lines rose to about 25%. Racial tensions between white and black soldiers led to at least 300 fights over a two-year period that left 71 dead. Fueling these fights was the belief among black soldiers that the largely white officers didn’t care about their lives. The lack of diversity, the military leaders wrote in their memoir, “led to a complete breakdown of understanding between the minority enlisted military and the white officers who led them.”
In what they described as “a painful chapter”, military officials said the Vietnam War “reflected the importance of cultivating diversity at all levels of leadership”. He also began the Army’s use of affirmative action, including racially conscious admissions policies in service academies and in ROTC programs.
In their lawsuits now in the Supreme Court against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions argued that the schools’ racially aware admissions process was unconstitutional and discriminatory against high achieving Asian American students in favor of traditionally underrepresented Black and Hispanic students.
The cases mark the second time Students for Fair Admissions and its founder, Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has raised millions of dollars from right-wing donors, have reached the Supreme Court in their efforts to dismantle affirmative action. . In 2016, they challenged the University of Texas on behalf of white and Asian students, but lost. That hasn’t stopped Blum from filing the latest challenges in the Supreme Court — all in an effort to eliminate the use of race in college admissions.
In an October 2022 interview, Blum said he thinks diversity on campus is a good thing, but “there’s a way to do it without putting your thumb on the scales.”
Given the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court and its controversial decision that overturned the landmark 1973 abortion decision in Roe v. Wade, it doesn’t seem likely that affirmative action as it is known will survive, despite decades of rulings that protected the use of race as a criterion for admission. In 2007, for example, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in a school bus case that “the way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Forms of this argument have existed since the 1970s, when a legal challenge reached the Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that 1978 case, Allan Bakke, a white man, was denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School. Although ruling that a separate admissions process for minority medical students was unconstitutional, Associate Justice Lewis Powell wrote that race can still be one of many factors in the admissions process. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued different decisions on whether race can be used in college admissions.
In Grutter v. Bollinger of 2003, Judge Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion that endorsed the University of Michigan’s “highly individualized holistic examination” that included race as a factor and had been legally challenged.
More recently, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2016, the court reaffirmed its belief in schools that “educate students to appreciate diverse viewpoints, to see themselves as more than mere stereotypes, and to develop the ability to live and work.” together as equal members of a common community.
Non-racial admissions policies have had mixed results.
In the Supreme Court cases, the University of California also filed a brief urging the Court to allow the use of race. The school argued that the elimination of its affirmative action program in 1996 caused its diversity numbers to drop in some cases by more than 50%. “UC’s experience demonstrates that the race-neutral methods it has diligently pursued for 25 years have been insufficient to significantly increase the diversity of the student body,” the school said in its brief. .
The impact on the number of black and Latino students was almost immediate. At UCLA, for example, African American students made up 7.13% of the freshman class in 1995 and just 3.43% in 1998.
More than two decades later, the numbers have not improved. Although Latino students make up 52.3% of California public high school graduates, only about 25.4% of freshmen in the UC system identify as Latino. For black students, the number of high school graduates was 5%, while the number of black freshmen was about 4%.
“UC’s decades-long experience with race-neutral approaches demonstrates that highly competitive universities may not be able to achieve the benefits of student body diversity through race-neutral measures. race only,” the UC memoir said.
Travis Knoll is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.