Skip to content

An unusual argument for affirmative action: national security

Some Senate Democrats worry that ending affirmative action will dry up the pipeline for minority officers

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, is one of 12 Democratic senators who highlighted the impact of affirmative action on national security in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, is one of 12 Democratic senators who highlighted the impact of affirmative action on national security in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The conservative-controlled Supreme Court appears ready to curtail the use of race in college admissions. But the federal government on Monday offered an unexpected defense of the practice: national security. 

The court is mulling whether to toss a 19-year-old precedent that has allowed schools to consider race as one of multiple factors in admissions, and justices are expected to issue a ruling before the end of the term in June that could upend admissions policies nationwide.

But the federal government, represented by Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, argued that so-called affirmative action policies have an impact on military readiness and that ending them could have downstream effects on the cohesion of the nation’s armed forces. 

During arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina on Monday, Prelogar said the military is a closed system in which future leaders are brought up from within over the course of decades. Should the court curtail affirmative action policies, the government is concerned that diversity in service academies and university-based officer training programs will decline as fewer minorities enter universities and the officer corps. 

“Our armed forces know from hard experience that when we do not have a diverse officer corps that is broadly reflective of a diverse fighting force, our strength and cohesion and military readiness suffer. So it is a critical national security imperative to attain diversity within the officer corps,” Prelogar said. 

Interest from Congress and others

The case has attracted a long list of officials and interest groups submitting their own takes on the issue. Among them is a group of 12 Senate Democrats. 

In an amicus brief filed to the court, the lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island and committee members Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, said because the military recruits its officers from colleges and universities, higher education diversity is “critical” to military effectiveness. 

“Each service academy has prioritized creating diverse communities of cadets and midshipmen, who, along with ROTC graduates, form the core of the Armed Forces’ officer corps,” the lawmakers said. “Congress has long supported these efforts. Through appropriations, Congress funds not only these diversity and inclusion initiatives, but also the service academies’ affiliated one-year preparatory schools, which the academies have long used as a pipeline to increase the enrollment of racial and ethnic minorities.”

Others have come out in favor of rolling back affirmative action policies. 

In an op-ed published in The Federalist last week and a brief filed with the court, two members of Veterans for Fairness and Merit (VFM), an organization that advocates for race-neutral, exclusively merit-based military officer accession, argued that the consideration of race in the military is unconstitutional. 

“Warfighters deserve the best-qualified leaders available, regardless of race, always. Providing them is a moral and national security imperative,” wrote retired Air Force Gen. Ronald Fogleman, who served as the service’s top uniformed officer during the Clinton administration, and VFM President Claude M. McQuarrie III. 

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, said the government’s argument that ending affirmative action would affect the military’s readiness was “a stretch.” 

More compelling, Cancian said, is the possibility that a nondiverse officer corps would raise legitimacy questions within the ranks, as it would not be reflective of America.

And that could, in turn, further the recruitment and retention challenges that the military currently faces, said Katherine Kuzminski, the director of the Center for New American Security’s Military, Veterans & Society program. 

“Military service is a closed profession. The representation that you have at the beginning of a career is only whittled down from there. There’s no way to access new talent,” Kuzminski said. “And when we look at our general officer corps, they tend to be in service up to 35 or 40 years. So the decisions that are made today about who was allowed in the service academies, or in ROTC or who were actively pursuing, that lays out the leadership that we’re looking at in 2063.”

And for diverse candidates coming into the military, seeing only white men in the officer corps could be disheartening, Kuzminski added.

“It might put their thumb on the scales in terms of getting out of the military,” she said.

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Biden, ‘Big Four’ to meet as spending talks sputter

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation