One important American success story in terms of race relations was the decision to integrate the armed forces in the wake of World War II, which stood in stark contrast to the general treatment of such matters in this nation. Unfortunately, that initial positive act apparently did not lead to widespread progress in the military. This led to one the most interesting parts of Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), her citation to and discussion of a brief submitted by a group of retired leaders of the United States Armed Services.

These former military and civilian leaders argued that “limited” race-conscious recruiting, admissions, and advancement policies had been, and continued to be, critical for the cohesiveness and legitimacy of the armed services, and thus essential for national security. Readers can at these links find the “armed services” Grutter brief, and a similar (but somewhat updated) brief submitted in Fisher I. The heart of their argument is that during and immediately after the Vietnam era, the Armed Services suffered from serious internal racial divisions and tensions.

One source of tension was a disproportionate number of Blacks in Army combat units. Across all the Armed Forces, Blacks accounted for 12.5% of U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War, at a time when they made up 11% of the young male population. Another source was the large disparity between the racially diverse makeup of enlisted men and the overwhelmingly white officer corps. In response, all five divisions of the Armed Forces instituted a variety of diversity and affirmative action policies, and the officer corps became substantially more racially diverse. In 2010, enlisted forces in active-duty forces were 17% Black, 11% Hispanic, 3.7% Asian-American, and 1.7% Native American. The officer corps in 2010 was 8.8% Black, 5.3% Hispanic, 3.9% Asian-American, and 0.5% Native American.

The claims and data resonated with the majority and were widely noted in commentaries about the case. Questions remain, however, about the extent to which this general narrative, and repeated claims about the importance of affirmative action in the military are supported by substantive empirical findings. For example, the Fisher brief argues as follows: “In fiscal year 2010, ROTC was the source for 49.7% of the Army’s officers, with the Army being the largest of our service branches. Moreover, ROTC is currently overwhelmingly the primary source for minority officers in the Army: 49.8% of all black officers, 46.5% of Native American officers, 46% of all Hispanic officers, and 42.9% of Asian officers obtained their commission through ROTC in 2010. The Army, the largest of the service branches, depends on ROTC for fielding almost half of its minority officers. Invalidating race-conscious admissions at ROTC-participating colleges and universities such as [the University of Texas] and ending the critical mass of highly-qualified minority candidates they seek to assemble, would capsize an effort that has been ongoing since the Truman Administration.” Fisher I brief, pp. 28-29.

This argument must be viewed with care and caution. It implies that ROTC is somehow a special diversity-enhancing pipeline to officer corps. But the statistics imply (and one can easily verify) that ROTC accounts for a higher percentage of white officer recruits (over 50%) than for any of the minority groups. The statistics for other branches of the Armed Services are even less favorable to this argument. Moreover, the brief presents no evidence to show that without racial preferences, nonwhites not admitted to elite universities would be any less likely to enroll in ROTC programs at other (though perhaps less elite) college campuses. If anything, the schools using very large racial preferences (e.g., Ivy League colleges) often have no ROTC program, thus arguably reducing the potential supply of minority ROTC recruits.

We do not underestimate the importance of these issues. There are many positives to be gleaned from the general history of these matters. That said, questions remain, and we invite debate on the merits and substance of the Armed Services model of affirmative action.