Affirmative action is upheld in military academies. Why might “diversity” matter to the US military?

The US Supreme Court struck down race-based admissions in civilian universities but left military academies alone. The military’s relentless recruitment of the poor and dispossessed could be to blame

July 06, 2023 by Natalia Marques
Black people make up 13.6 percent of the US population, but 17% of its military. (Photo by Sgt. Kevin Stabinsky, USA)

Last week, the US Supreme Court released a slew of decisions that affected the democratic rights of millions. The Court ruled in favor of discrimination against LGBTQ people and voted to keep 43 million people deep in the trenches of student debt. The court also ruled race-based university admissions criteria to be unconstitutional, which could tank the Black and Brown student populations in higher education. But notably, the Court left one type of higher learning institution alone in this ruling—the nation’s military academies.

A footnote to the Supreme Court majority ruling, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, reads, “This opinion also does not address the issue [of whether military academies can have race-based admissions criteria], in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

What “interests” could military academies have in employing affirmative action which differ from civilian universities? In an amicus curiae brief filed by the government, the US itself argues that military authorities “have learned through hard experience that the effectiveness of our military depends on a diverse officer corps that is ready to lead an increasingly diverse fighting force.”

However, data on military recruitment patterns suggests that the military’s successful appeal to maintain race-based admissions criteria has less to do with diversity than its patterns of preying upon the desperation of the most marginalized.

An important piece of context is that the US military is experiencing a recruitment crisis at a time when the nation’s leaders are ramping up a Cold War drive against nations such as China and Russia, which could break out into a hot war at any moment. At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, the Army outlined that it expected to fall 10,000 individuals short of this year’s enlistee goal. Meanwhile, the Navy expects to be 6,000 short, and the Air Force 10,000 short. And in February, US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth claimed that last year, the Army fell short 15,000 recruits. 

The poverty draft

Enlistment in the US military is entirely voluntary, but many veterans and anti-militarization activists claim that the poverty and despair of the US working class is itself a draft. A 2015 report in Education Week made use of the Freedom of Information Act to reveal that during the 2011-2012 school year, military recruiters visited a high-income school in Connecticut just four times, but visited a low-income school over 40 times.

Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) programs, an Army-administered federal program for high school students, which effectively serves as a pipeline to military enlistment, are more prevalent in lower-income schools. In 2017, the RAND Corporation revealed that, “at public high schools with JROTC programs, 56.6 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, on average,” while “at public high schools without JROTC programs, 46.9 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, on average.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, signed into law by former president George W. Bush, was a sweeping conservative educational reform measure that, among many other things, required all public schools to grant military recruiters access to private information about students, or else lose their federal funding. Students and families can technically decline to share this information with the military. However, while some schools have an “opt-in” measure in which parents must give permission before recruiters can initiate contact, most schools use an “opt-out” method, in which parents have to explicitly say no to providing recruiters with information on their kids. The No Child Left Behind Act also requires schools to give military recruiters the same access to students as recruiters from universities or prospective employers.

As Roberto Camacho reports in Prism, “Schools can also be opaque about parents’ options to limit access to their children’s information, which disproportionately affects time- and resource-poor households, such as single parents, parents who work multiple jobs, those who are English language learners, and families who are simply unaware of these policies to begin with, by making them easier targets for recruiters.

Military recruiters also exploit young people’s desperation around the student loan crisis to attract enlistees. A US Army ad from 2021 reads, “Take on a big world without taking on huge debt.” The average public university student in the US, not to mention those who attend the nation’s over 1,500 private universities, borrows USD 31,410 for a Bachelor’s degree. 

Politicians make no secret that student loan debt is a military recruitment tool. When President Joe Biden first announced his student loan debt forgiveness program, which the Supreme Court struck down last week, Republican representative Jim Banks tweeted, “Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments.” A 2017 Department of Defense poll revealed that 49% of respondents indicated that if they were to join the military, avoiding paying for an education would be one of the reasons.

While aggressively targeting impoverished youth for recruitment, the military has had success recruiting from the most marginalized racial groups. Since the September 11 attacks, Native Americans serve in the military at the highest rate of any ethnic group. Black women also have high enlistment rates. And although Bush pushed many policies to curb immigration and deport migrants, following the 9/11 attacks, he fast-tracked citizenship for non-citizens serving in the military (however, from 2013 to 2018, US immigration enforcement ruthlessly deported veterans without considering their military service).

Compared with other institutions, including elite colleges and universities, the military is more reflective of the nation’s diversity. Black people make up 13.6 percent of the US population, but 17% of its military. However, Black people remain underrepresented in the officer class: for example, only two out of 41 four-star generals are Black. Those in the class of soldiers who are sacrificed in the US’s conflicts abroad, however, disproportionately represent the most oppressed social categories, especially those without means to pay for a college education.

Last week, a friend who was recruited on his high school campus was sent off to the Persian Gulf region leaving behind his wife and newborn daughter,” Jessica Marshall and Estevan Bassett-Nembhard wrote in People’s World in 2003, in the midst of the US war against Iraq. “When he joined the army reserves he never figured he’d be going off to war and, with no other way to pay for college, signed up as a way to fund his education. This is the story of hundreds of thousands of youth across the United States who, because of a lack of affordable, quality education and options for the future, turn to the armed services as a way to make a future for themselves.”