Politics & Policy

Operation Racial Preferences

What the U.S. military doesn't need.

As a 1968 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the University of Michigan admissions lawsuits, I had a special interest in the amicus brief filed by a small group of retired military officers who support Michigan’s race-conscious policies. Among the brief’s signers were several officers known chiefly for their close alignment with the Clinton administration — an administration which was fully committed to race-conscious decision-making.


Apart from my role as an advocate in the Michigan cases, my own interest in the retired officers’ brief was heightened by the fact that two of them, Admiral Dennis Blair and Major General Charles Bolden, were my Naval Academy classmates. Since race is so important to the University of Michigan, let me point out that Denny Blair is white, and Charlie Bolden is black. In 1964, Denny and Charlie entered the Naval Academy because each was easily among the very best applicants who applied. Charlie Bolden didn’t need 20 extra “points” because he was black, or the condescension of being evaluated against a lower standard, in order to qualify. And he surely was not admitted to meet any “quota” or “goal,” or to help create some “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students. It was apparent from the nearly all-white class that showed up that hot, humid summer that such concerns did not exist.

The retired officers’ argument can be summarized as follows: “The military must be permitted to train and educate a diverse officer corps to further our compelling governmental interest in an effective military.” Perhaps. But I’ve always assumed our nation’s compelling interest in having an effective military demands that the military recruit and train the very best officers it can attract, irrespective of race. Why, I wondered, were these retired officers urging that strict adherence to a system which forbids racial discrimination against officer candidates be seen as an impediment, when it came to providing for the nation’s security? It’s an argument that makes no sense.

The brief’s writers phrased it this way: “The military must both maintain selectivity in admissions and train and educate a racially diverse office corps to command racially diverse troops.” This is a not-so-subtle way of saying that, as the University of Michigan itself has openly argued, no institution can maintain selectivity while also admitting black, Hispanic, and Native American students. It is an argument based on the condescending premise that unless race is used in an explicit, quota-like fashion, few if any minority members will continue to join our nation’s elite officer corps.

I reject that premise. Ending preferences in college and university admissions need not result in declines in minority officers, much less declines in minority enrollments at the schools and service academies that produce the bulk of our nation’s officer corps. At three flagship “race-neutral admissions” institutions, the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin (where test-score and grade-point requirements are virtually identical to those demanded at each of the service academies), undergraduate minority enrollments meet or exceed those found at the academies. And surely no one is arguing that black or other minority students are incapable of excelling academically and in every other way necessary to compete with white and Asian students, no matter how rigorous the standards may be.


A good illustration is Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, one of our nation’s most highly visible spokesmen throughout the successful prosecution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. General Brooks was a straight-A student and an outstanding athlete at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif. He went on to become the first black First Captain at the U.S. Military Academy — West Point’s highest honor. In a recent interview given in Doha, Qatar, where he has been serving as chief military spokesman for the Central Command, General Brooks described himself as the product of a highly successful two-parent family led by “two Christian parents who are loving and are concerned about bringing up a family of excellence.” General Brooks’s mother, Naomi, is a teacher. His father, Leo Brooks Sr., is a retired two-star Army general. General Brooks’s older brother, Leo Brooks Jr., is also a brigadier general (and West Point graduate) who currently serves as Commandant for the Corps of Cadets. Their sister, Marquita, is a lawyer. To characterize General Brooks as a product of racial preferences — rather than as an American leader who earned both his admission to West Point and his current position solely on the basis of his own merit — would be nothing short of an insult.

Are there enough black Vincent Brookses? No — but there aren’t enough white, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American Vincent Brookses either. Still, to the extent that minority applicants are not qualifying for our nation’s service academies in numbers commensurate with their demographic presence (a real problem, which we cannot ignore and should continue to address), the use of racial double standards in admissions is no solution. As UC Berkeley professor John McWhorter has demonstrated in his widely acclaimed book, Losing the Race, preferences in fact frustrate the resolution of this problem — a view shared by numerous scholars and educators.


The retired officers’ brief also contained many perplexing assertions, such as its bizarre claim that students educated “in racially homogenous classrooms are ill-prepared for productive lives in our diverse society.” No one is suggesting that racially homogeneous classrooms are more desirable than racially heterogeneous classrooms. But the brief’s explicit criticism of those who may have been educated in racially homogeneous settings surely must have come as a surprise to the three distinguished black generals whose names appeared on its cover: Two of them, Army Lieutenant General Julius W. Becton and Air Force General Lloyd W. Newton, graduated from racially homogeneous historically black universities (Prairie View A&M and Tennessee State, respectively). In fact, it’s well known that historically black colleges and universities produce an extraordinarily high percentage of the current black military officers when compared to other institutions of higher learning. United Negro College Fund data show, for example, that in 1996, over one-third (37.6 percent) of African American officers in the Army and over one-fifth of African American officers in the Navy (23.0 percent) and the Air Force (21.3 percent) were graduates of HBCUs. Following his retirement from the Army, General Becton returned to his alma mater to serve as its president. It’s hard to imagine Generals Becton and Newton agreeing with the brief’s contention that men and women who have been educated at racially homogeneous institutions are therefore ill-prepared for productive lives in a diverse society.

The third of the three black generals, my Naval Academy classmate Charlie Bolden, also was educated in what at the time (1964-1968) could only — unfortunately, but fairly — be characterized as a racially homogeneous setting. Given the times, it’s a fair guess that most of the retired white officers who signed onto the brief had also been educated in racially homogeneous classrooms. Yet to a man, each proved not to be, as the brief contemptuously suggests, “ill prepared for productive lives in our diverse society.” Quite the opposite. Each rose to positions of nearly unparalleled leadership in the United States military, an institution often recognized as the most racially diverse in the world.

Apart from these obvious contradictions, there is also the brief’s troubling implication that only black officers can effectively lead black enlisted personnel. The incendiary corollary, of course, is that only white officers can effectively lead white enlisted personnel. This is a destructive and divisive argument, entirely at odds with the true meaning of military leadership.

Consider this: Does any person believe that General Bolden, a highly decorated Marine Corps pilot and NASA astronaut, was a less effective leader for white Marines? Or that he was less respected by the white, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American officers and Marines who served under him than he was by the black officers and Marines who did? Does anyone seriously believe Admiral Blair cared less for the safety and well-being of his minority officers and sailors than he did for those who were white? Is it even remotely conceivable that General Newton would have felt less concern over the safety and well-being (not to mention the professional competence) of a white or Asian wing man than he would had that same wing man been black, or Hispanic, or Native American? And does anyone believe that General Brooks, when he was reporting on the loss of American lives during the recent war in Iraq, was any less torn when the fallen soldier or airman was the son or daughter of a white or Hispanic family than he was when the fallen American was black? The University of Michigan and some of their supporters may believe that to be the case. I do not.


When it comes to protecting our national security, I have no doubt whatsoever that our great military leaders care about one thing only — and that is having the very best person flying on their wing, standing watch by their side, or covering their flank in a foxhole. Their duty to our country demands nothing less.

After spending four years being educated with Admiral Blair and General Bolden, and knowing the extraordinary character each possessed, I can say without reservation that if next year, and for years to come, the entering class at Annapolis were filled entirely with Charlie Boldens (or if West Point were filled entirely with candidates possessing the background and character of General Brooks) — I would sleep just fine. For that same reason, if it were filled with candidates of the caliber of Denny Blair, I would also sleep securely. Unlike the admissions personnel at Michigan, I have faith in the abundant talent present in every one of our country’s racial and ethnic communities. Which is why I have no doubt that future classes at the University of Michigan, and at each of our service academies, will continue to be made up of racially diverse and highly talented men and women — and that race need not be a factor in insuring that outcome.

Finally, Denny and Charlie and General Brooks share something far more important than skin color when it comes to the military’s mission. This is a total dedication to our country and a willingness to put their lives at risk to protect the freedoms of each and every one of us, without giving a passing thought to what anyone’s race or ethnicity may be. That should be the only test for every officer entrusted with the duty of protecting our national security. It is for all these reasons that I believe we must stop the destructive practice of dividing ourselves along racial lines. If we have learned nothing else from our tragic history with race, we should have learned this: Dividing any collection of individuals by race — whether it be a platoon, a brigade, or an entire nation — and assigning benefits or assessing penalties to the resulting groups, is fundamentally destructive. Racially discriminatory policies like Michigan’s don’t heal a society; they poison it. They don’t lead to a cohesive and effective military; they undermine it. For the sake of our national security, Michigan’s policies, and others like them, should be ended.

R. Lawrence Purdy served five years on active duty, including a tour in Vietnam. He currently is a lawyer in private practice in Minneapolis, Minn. Who serves as one of the trial counsel for the plaintiffs in the University of Michigan-admissions lawsuits which were argued on April 1, 2003, before the United States Supreme Court.


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