The U.S. Says No to Affirmative Action—Until It's Time for War

The U.S. government values Black people when we serve in their wars, but not enough to invest in our education.

Kinjo Kiema

Military recruits raise their right hands as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reads the oath of enlistment at Fort George G. Meade on July 5, 2023 in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In late June, the Right won a decades-long fight to overturn affirmative action when the Supreme Court ruled, in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, that considering race in college admissions violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The case that ultimately landed before the court’s 6-3 right-wing majority was brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group that for years has challenged the admissions policies of schools like Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Across the country, conservatives cheered.

But buried in a seemingly small footnote in the decision was a caveat that is just as telling about race and opportunity in America. In Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion, the Supreme Court allowed race-based admissions to continue in one place — military academies, which the Court declared have distinct” and compelling interests” that warrant an exception.

The decision’s finding that affirmative action is acceptable in the military, but nowhere else, encapsulates how the United States has never seen Black people as full citizens: declaring we aren’t worthy of educational investment, but are worth training to die in U.S. wars. It also demonstrates how for Black people, the opportunities offered by the military can amount to a no-win situation. 

The Poverty Draft” 

Affirmative action was created in the 1960s to make access to education and jobs more available to people of all races. While there’s a myth that affirmative action means accepting or hiring Black people into schools or for jobs over better-qualified white applicants, in reality, it’s just preventing us from being deliberately excluded when we qualify. Before affirmative action, institutions could legally discriminate against Black students, but affirmative action ended that, on paper at least. (Ironically, it’s not Black people who have benefited most from the policy, but white women.) Now that affirmative action has been overturned, it’s likely universities will reduce the number of Black students they admit. And that may have implications for Black people’s relationship to the military as well.

Both higher education and military service have long been touted as tickets out of poverty and into the middle class. For almost as long, the two have been linked, with the military promoted as a key way for low-income students to get an education they couldn’t otherwise afford. One 2011 survey found that 75% of military members said they’d joined to get access to education. This exploitative bargain is so ingrained that in 2016, when the question of making college free became a prime presidential campaign debate, some military experts opposed the prospect for the impact it would have on recruitment.

SCOTUS’s decision finding that affirmative action is acceptable in the military, but nowhere else, encapsulates how the United States has never seen Black people as full citizens: declaring we aren’t worthy of educational investment, but are worth training to die in U.S. wars.

These ties have helped the military aggressively recruit in low-income communities of color, with significant success. Currently, Black men are overrepresented in military service, accounting for about 21% of the armed forces although they make up just 12% of the general population. Among female service members, Black women are more represented than any other race. Notably this overrepresentation does not exist in the top ranks of the military, which is still dominated by white men, while the lower ranks are filled with non-white service members given fewer opportunities to advance.

A lot of us may come from urbanized or other low-income communities where a lot of ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] and military recruiters would come into our secondary schooling to coerce us with tuition assistance or even just in forms of different scholarships and socioeconomic opportunities,” said Manuel-Antonio Rodriguez, a student activist with the anti-war group Dissenters at Virginia’s historically Black Hampton University, which sits between Langley Air Force Base and the Navy base in neighboring Norfolk. 

It’s well established that military recruiters target low-income schools and youth of color. The U.S. invests exponentially more in its military than in education, and according to the New York Times, majority-minority schools are nearly three times as likely as majority-white schools to have a JROTC [Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] program.” In some schools — particularly those that are underfunded — military instruction can even become embedded in the curriculum in surprising and troubling ways. Traditionally, high school students who enroll in JROTC take some of their academic classes, such as civics and government, with military instructors, who in some states require fewer qualifications than other teachers. JROTC instructors also teach a pretty different curriculum, with an emphasis on cultivating nationalism. While JROTC is supposed to be voluntary, a 2022 New York Times investigation found that thousands of students — over 80% of them in majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods — were automatically enrolled in JROTC-led courses, often without their knowledge. Some families who fought to remove their children from JROTC instruction were told that they wouldn’t graduate unless they completed the course, effectively making the programs mandatory.

What’s more, thanks to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind” policy, schools can lose federal funding if they don’t allow recruiters a certain level of access to youth, even though JROTC programs have witnessed numerous scandals, with reports of widespread sexual abuse as well as cases of fraud, wherein military recruiters encourage or help students to lie on application paperwork in order to meet their quotas. The military also collects data on millions of high school students, and even uses video game platforms as a recruitment method, wherein on-duty military members take to interactive gaming services like Twitch to promote the military to teens as young as 13

Typically recruiters present joining up as something that would benefit marginalized students, said Rodriguez. But given so many communities of color have ample experience with the U.S. military’s history of imperialism and support of colonialism, he continued, In reality it would be us signing our lives away to a system that never initially meant to benefit us.” 

Students in the ROTC program at Quantico High School, in Quantico, Virginia, practice a drill after school. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Serving While Black

In 2020, when the Air Force distributed a survey asking whether service members had experienced racism in the military, a 23-year veteran I’ll call Maurice didn’t know where to begin. I went through that entire survey and I typed so much,” said Maurice, who requested to use a pseudonym out of concern for professional repercussions. Did I see and experience racism in the military? Absolutely.”

Maurice joined JROTC as a high school freshman, figuring that wearing a uniform one day a week would ease the financial burden in a family without money to buy extra clothes. By his sophomore year, he was working with an Air Force recruiter. And then by the time my junior year came around, I was already doing the paperwork and getting everything together,” he said. My mind was being trained on the way to go.”

But once in the Air Force, Maurice soon came to see another side to service. While there certainly were benefits — the military helped pay for his college degree and MBA, and he’s glad to know he’ll have healthcare for the rest of his life — he said he was also passed over for promotions that less-qualified white applicants received. Once, he said, after he underwent major surgery, a white colleague called his doctor and attempted to get him in trouble for taking his approved medical leave; then Maurice’s white supervisor worked to protect his coworker from any consequences.

He’s hardly alone. The military has a long history of not treating its Black members well. After the Civil War, laws were passed around the country to prevent Black veterans from owning weapons because white Americans were terrified Black people would rise up using skills built during their military training. Thousands of Black veterans were lynched or brutalized after returning home from that war as well as both World Wars I and II; many others faced routine discrimination and violence, sometimes while they were in uniform. The 1944 GI Bill did not benefit Black veterans in the same way it helped white veterans get ahead, since Black vets were actively intimidated out of obtaining the benefits they were due. In fact, the net effect of the bill was to widen the racial wealth gap significantly, since segregation and racist violence meant Black people couldn’t purchase the same homes or attend the same schools that the law opened up to their white counterparts.

In 2016, when the question of making college free became a prime presidential campaign debate, some military experts opposed the prospect for the impact it would have on recruitment.

The military was officially segregated until the government needed more bodies on the front lines during the Vietnam War. In response to that need, in 1966 the Department of Defense launched Project 100,000, which lowered the mental and physical standards for recruitment to the military. One congressman, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), referred to Project 100,000 as genocide,” saying, It’s nothing more than killing of human beings who are not members of the elite,” since the military targeted not only poor people of color — 40% of the more than 400,000 men recruited under the initiative were Black — but also people with intellectual disabilities. Participants in the project died at a much higher rate, with one author finding that Project 100,000 recruits died at three times the rate of other soldiers. 

Black soldiers died at higher rates in the Iraq War as well, and are still more likely to be severely injured. Additionally, many service members and veterans in recent years have spoken up about the racism they encountered as students in military academies, with students at West Point detailing racial slurs they endured or nooses left on their desks.

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More broadly, there are numerous ways that militarism hurts the Black community: it’s one of the biggest drivers of climate change worldwide, while Black people globally are disproportionately impacted by climate change; there are clear connections between the military and police brutality; military interventions in Africa and other majority Black nations like Haiti have left devastation in their wake; and for years, the military has tolerated white supremacists in its ranks. 

And then there are the moral injuries.

Without knowing all the language of it, it just felt wrong for me as a Black man going to a country like Iraq where I didn’t know anything,” said Claude Copeland, an Army veteran of the Iraq War from New York. Copeland joined the Army as part of what he calls the poverty draft,” but ended up feeling deeply conflicted about becoming part of the police of the world” on behalf of a country always looking for more resources. We said we were going to be there to help folks; I heard that but I didn’t see and experience that.”

In 2008, Copeland completed his years of enlistment and left the Army for college. He subsequently became involved in helping students at New York City’s Medgar Evers College work to remove ROTC from their campus. Both students and faculty at the CUNY school felt the program had snuck” back into the school over the last two decades after having been kicked out amid anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. They also objected to the racial dynamics of the recruitment program, since most higher-ranking officers coming to campus were white, while working to recruit New Yorkers of color at a university that is roughly 75% Black.

“We’re not being given proper resources unless it contributes to American imperialism and the war machine.”

For Copeland, the military’s varied efforts to recruit people of color amount to a fig leaf, helping further the argument of How can we be an organization that’s white supremacist when we have all these people of color?’” At the same time, he noted, there’s a complete lack of investment in Black youth seeking other educational and career opportunities, because, With non-military academies, it’s not to the benefit of the state to have more people of color receiving this kind of education.”

Manuel-Antonio Rodriguez agreed, saying there’s vanishingly little investment in career development for Hampton University liberal arts students like himself, but abundant career fairs and other opportunities at the college pushing military or defense industry jobs.

We’re not being given proper resources,” he said, unless [it is] in an instance where it contributes to American imperialism and the war machine in its entirety.”

People rally in support of affirmative action in college admissions as arguments start on the cases at the Supreme Court on October 31, 2022. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The War on Woke” vs. the War Machine

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in June, numerous observers, from academics to policy experts and lawmakers, have condemned the implications of the court’s exemption, allowing affirmative action to continue at military academies. Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado called the decision not just upsetting but outright grotesque.” 

The court is saying diversity shouldn’t matter, EXCEPT when deciding who can fight and die for our country,” Crow said, reinforcing the notion that these communities can sacrifice for America but not be full participants in every other way.”

But amid that debate, a handful of conservatives have also objected to the exemption, with some announcing their hope to pass legislation that brings fairness” to the military. In July, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, introduced legislation, the Military Merit, Fairness, and Equality Act,” which would update the National Defense Authorization Act to ban military academies from considering race in admissions. 

The same lawyer who represented Students for Fair Admissions in the SCOTUS case that ended affirmative action in college and university admissions is now collecting stories from white and Asian students who were denied admission to West Point, the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy, in preparation for a new lawsuit, warning that service academies must end the use of racial classifications and preferences in their admissions policies” or face polarizing litigation.”

These efforts are occurring at the same time as Republicans’ increasing denunciations of the military for having gone woke” by implementing routine diversity programs. This July, the House passed a bill, the Eliminate DEI in the Military Act,” which would attempt to ban all military diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in an effort to keep the military focused on its primary mission of warfighting, not wokeness.” While the prospects for the bill in the Senate look doubtful, it has gained significant Republican support, including from GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, who this July said that all diversity efforts in the military should be stopped and replaced with merit, fairness and equality.”

Justice Roberts' rationale for the exemption reveals the ugly truth that the military does indeed have a "distinct interest" to maintain: keeping the pipeline of recruitment from communities of color wide open.

It’s unclear how well Republican attacks on the SCOTUS exception will fare, since it points to a notable conflict in conservatives’ aims. Justice Roberts’ rationale for the exemption reveals the ugly truth that the military does indeed have a distinct interest” to maintain: keeping the pipeline of recruitment from communities of color wide open. As some conservatives prioritize their war on woke” over their commitment to the military, it’s unclear which principle — white supremacy or empire — will win out.

Should Roberts’ exemption prevail, young people of color with limited economic prospects will continue to be lured into the military through promises of education and career stability, only to encounter a system that uses them but doesn’t adequately protect or value them. Should conservative critics like Wicker and DeSantis succeed, eliminating affirmative action at military academies might well mean that Black people are even less likely to receive higher ranking positions — having lost yet another path to education and career advancement — while still making up a large percentage of the military rank and file. 

Without a robust movement to make education a public good that’s available to everyone, and a revived anti-war movement that can challenge the destructive military industrial complex, the status quo will remain. Either way, it’s part of the lose-lose scenario Black people face in the military, and U.S. society more broadly, as there’s no real escaping the racial hierarchy of a white supremacist society.

Kinjo Kiema (she/​her) is a Kenyan-American organizer and writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @captain_kinj and read her writing at www​.kin​jok​iema​.com.

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