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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

Lawsuit targets affirmative action at West Point

West Point cadets
Pfc. Anastasia Rakowsky/United States Military Academy at West Point
West Point cadets

The next battle over affirmative action in higher education will take place at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the training ground for the army’s future officers. The same group that challenged race-conscious admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina has now sued West Point, reviving the decades-long debate over the value of diversity in the military, and whether race should be considered when the military selects its leaders.

Edward Blum founded Students for Fair Admissions — the activist group at the center of this summer’s landmark Supreme Court case that struck down affirmative action in college admission — on the premise that a student’s merit should take precedence over race in admissions. It’s an argument that he’s now taking to West Point.

“There is no merit in judging people by their skin color,” Blum said. “There is merit in judging officers and enlisted men by their competence, their loyalty and their service.”

The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t apply to the nation’s military academies, where cadets and midshipmen are groomed for leadership and admission is famously difficult. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a foot note that the military academies might have distinct interests for considering race that civilian colleges do not. But Blum said that footnote doesn't preclude him from challenging the policy.

“It was really a statement of agnosticism,” Blum said. “The unique nature of the service academies was not before the court and therefore the court wasn't going to address it so it's a little more complex.”

The footnote opened the door for Students for Fair Admissions to sue West Point, alleging that its focus on race when evaluating a candidate violates the equal protection principles in the Constitution. The case breathes new life into the longstanding debate over the value of diversity in the military’s officer corps, and whether race should be considered when the military selects its leaders.

Eboni Nelson is the dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law. She said proponents of affirmative action, including at the Defense Department, have long held that diverse leaders are essential in an increasingly diverse population.

“When you think about the importance of business leaders, everyone in the workforce, our judicial system, our legal system, our military — having people from diverse backgrounds and diverse identities contributes to the positivity of those institutions in our society,” Nelson said. “It makes for better decision making, makes for positive educational outcomes, makes for cross cultural understanding.”

It’s not clear if the case against West Point will make it to the Supreme Court. If it does, the court will have to decide if the military does, in fact, have a distinct and compelling interest to consider race when evaluating applicants to the military academies.

“What exactly we mean as a distinct interest — I think it's going to be very difficult for the court to define that,” Nelson said. “And when specifically asked to address this issue, I do not think that they will end up finding that the consideration of race is considered to be constitutional in this context.”

West Point declined to comment on pending litigation. The academy has made efforts in recent years to increase the diversity of the student body and earlier this year removed commemorations of Robert E. Lee and other confederate relics.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.