The conservative activist who launched a full-scale legal assault on affirmative action programs in higher education has now set his sights on a new target: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Edward Blum, 72, is the founder and president of Students For Fair Admissions, also known as SFFA. SFFA was the plaintiff in the lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina which resulted in the Supreme Court decision in June that declared race-conscious admissions policies at colleges and universities were unconstitutional—except at military academies.
Unsatisfied, Students For Fair Admissions has now sued West Point, arguing that the Supreme Court ruling barring affirmative action should also apply to the nation’s military academies. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the White Plains division of the Southern District of New York, asks the court to declare that West Point’s use of race in admissions violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and to prohibit the academy from “considering or knowing” an applicant’s race during the admissions process.
Besides West Point, the lawsuit names as defendants the Defense Department, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (one of West Point’s notable Black graduates), and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, as well as the military academy’s superintendent and director of admissions.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two unidentified white male high school students who want to apply to West Point but contend that their race would prevent them “from competing for admission on an equal footing,” Reuters reports.
A West Point spokesperson told CNN: “The U.S. Military Academy does not comment on ongoing litigation to protect the integrity of its outcome for all parties involved.”
That leaves plenty of space for Blum and SFFA to fill. In a press release announcing the lawsuit, Blum said:
“Over the years, courts have been mindful of the military’s unique role in our nation’s life and the distinctive considerations that come with it. However, no level of deference justifies these polarizing and disliked racial classifications and preferences in admissions to West Point or any of our service academies.”
He added, “Because the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinion in the SFFA cases expressly forbids all institutions of higher education from using race in admissions decisions, it must follow that the U. S. military higher education institutions must end their race-based policies as well.”
In its June ruling, the Supreme Court practically invited this lawsuit. The majority opinion banning race-based college admissions was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and included a footnote that specifically excluded the nation’s four military academies. Roberts said that the high court was not ruling one way or the other on the academies due to “the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”
A Thursday analysis in The Washington Post notes that “Roberts was alluding to the argument made by the Department of Justice (and by a group of retired military officers in an important 2003 affirmative action case) that military morale requires an officer corps racially similar to that of the enlisted force.”
The New York Times wrote Tuesday that the lawsuit “revives a longstanding debate over whether national security depends on the military academies being permitted to use racial preferences to develop a pipeline of officers who mirror the demographic composition of the enlisted troops and the population at large.”
The issue of the military academies came up during oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Harvard and UNC cases, The Washington Post reports.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, representing the federal government in the Harvard and UNC case, argued last fall to the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic diversity is crucial for military readiness. It is “a critical national security imperative to attain diversity within the officer corps,” she said. “And, at present, it’s not possible to achieve that diversity without race-conscious admissions, including at the nation’s service academies.”
NPR wrote Tuesday that the military has long realized that national security “depends on having a diverse officer corps that is ready to lead an increasingly diverse fighting force.”
“It learned that lesson the hard way during the Vietnam war when racial tensions caused serious problems between the overwhelmingly white officer corps and the significantly minority enlisted men.’
A website honoring African American veterans describes in detail the conditions facing Black soldiers in the Vietnam War:
More than 300,000 Black Americans served in Vietnam. Though only about 12% of the U.S. population, Black service members were 16.3% of the armed forces, and up to 25% of enlisted men in the Army, but only 2% of officers across all branches. The proportional increase of Black service members in combat roles was a shift from earlier conflicts. Because of this over-representation, the casualty rate for Black troops was disproportionately higher.
Leaders realized they had to make changes. In December 1970, the Defense Department declared that officers who failed to act against discrimination would be relieved of command. The Department of Defense took steps to address the shortage of Black officers in all branches.
The Defense Department ultimately concluded that the lack of minorities in the officer corps "threatened the integrity and performance of the military." And since the Vietnam War, the service academies have aggressively addressed that problem by considering race, along with other qualities, in determining who to admit.
But Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit claims that the U.S. military has changed significantly since the Vietnam War so there’s no need to continue considering race in admissions to the military academies. (The other American military academies are the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.)
The New York Times reported that an amicus brief filed by a group of veterans in support of the plaintiffs in the Harvard case found that “as of 2020, 27% of Army officers were members of a racial minority, and 12.3% were Black—only about 1 percentage point less than the Black share of the national population.”
However, a 2020 report by the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace found that when the percentages are broken down by rank, “African Americans’ representation drops off markedly at the senior level. Black officers just don’t become generals as often as their White counterparts.”
Regarding West Point, The Washington Post gave this breakdown of minority representation among the corps of cadets:
West Point enrolls about 4,400 cadets. Sixty-one percent are White, according to federal data, 12 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Black, 9 percent Asian American and 2 percent multiracial. The data show it admitted 12 percent of applicants in 2022.
Getting into West Point is serious business. Most applicants procure nominations from federal politicians but there is something of a “legacy” opportunity as well, according to the academy’s website.
- U.S. Senators, Representatives, and Delegates, The President of the U.S. (including the governor of Puerto Rico and the delegates to Congress from Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Northern Marianas Islands)
- The Vice President of the U.S.
- Army (Active, Reserve, and National Guard)
- Army Junior and Senior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Units and Honor ROTC Units of other services
- Children of deceased or disabled veterans and children of prisoners of war or servicemembers missing in action
- Children of Medal of Honor Awardees
West Point reports that the class of 2027 includes more than 1,240 U.S. citizens and 14 international students. Minority enrollment accounts for roughly 38% of the incoming class, including 127 African Americans, 137 Hispanic Americans, 170 Asian Americans, and 18 Native Americans.
The academy’s website also describes its non-discrimination policy:
The United States Military Academy is fully committed to affirmative action and to its policies of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in all programs, and activities without regard to race, color, national original, sex, religion, and sexual orientation. Evidence of practices not consistent with these policies should be reported to the office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
That commitment, apparently, is too much for Blum and his Students For Fair Admissions.
The SFFA lawsuit states:
“Instead of admitting future cadets based on objective metrics and leadership potential, West Point focuses on race. In fact, it openly publishes its racial composition ‘goals,’ and its director of admissions brags that race is wholly determinative for hundreds if not thousands of applicants.”
The complaint disregards the military’s half-century-old practice of seeking to reflect enlisted troops in the officers’ ranks, adding:
“West Point has no justification for using race-based admissions. Those admissions are unconstitutional for all other public institutions of higher education. The Academy is not exempt from the Constitution … Because West Point discriminates on the basis of race, its admission policy should be declared unlawful and enjoined.”
But perhaps the most ludicrous statement in the lawsuit is this one:
“For most of its history, West Point has evaluated cadets based on merit and achievement. America’s enemies do not fight differently based on the race of the commanding officer opposing them, soldiers must follow orders without regard to the skin color of those giving them, and battlefield realities apply equally to all soldiers regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
Let’s look at what the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has to say about that history:
In its first 133 years of existence (1802–1935), over 10,000 white cadets graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. In stark contrast, only three African American cadets could claim this achievement: Henry Ossian Flipper (1877), John Hanks Alexander (1887), and Charles Young (1889).
Only three of the 12 African American cadets admitted between 1870 and 1899 managed to graduate. Here’s what they had to overcome:
Each endured physical and emotional abuse and racist treatment from their white peers and professors throughout their time at the Academy. They were ostracized, barred from social activities with other cadets, and spoken to only when officially necessary, a practice known as silencing.
The first Black graduate. Flipper, was born into slavery in 1856 in Georgia. Young was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1864. And Alexander, who was born in Arkansas in 1864, was the son of former slaves. After graduating, all three served in all-black “Buffalo Soldier” regiments in the segregated U.S. Army on the Western frontier.
Here’s what Major General John D. Schofield, the superintendent of West Point, had to say in 1880 about the decision to admit Black cadets:
“To send to West Point for four years competition a young man who was born in slavery is to assume that half a generation is sufficient to raise a colored man to the social, moral, and intellectual level which the average white man has reached in several hundred years. As well might the common farm horse be entered in a four-mile race against the best blood inherited from a long line of English racers.”
After years of severe hazing, Benjamin Davis, Jr. became one of the few Black cadets to graduate before World War II, graduating in 1936. He went on to become the first Black man to earn the rank of general in the U.S. military. In 1943, Davis was promoted to full colonel and was named commander of the all-Black Tuskegee fighter group, the 332nd “Red Tails,” who famously shot down more than 100 German planes during World War II.
When President Harry S. Truman established the Air Force as a separate branch of the military in 1947, Davis was one of its founding officers. As the U.S. military evolved, he started leading integrated units. He retired with the rank of three-star lieutenant general.
And now we have Edward Blum, a former stockbroker, who’s long been leading the charge to eliminate affirmative action programs in all sectors of American life. He is not a lawyer, but a legal strategist who matches plaintiffs and lawyers to advance the conservative agenda. He draws most of his funding from several conservative foundations, including The 85 Fund. That’s a nonprofit group closely aligned with Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, who has played a key role in filling the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, with justices likely to rule in favor of Blum’s lawsuits.
Author and political commentator Keith Boykin sees right through Blum’s anti-affirmative action agenda.
Boykin’s not wrong. Blum’s not just focused on higher education; another of his organizations, the Texas-based American Alliance for Equal Rights, has been filing lawsuits challenging race-based policies in the private sector. In August, Blum’s group filed two such anti-affirmative action lawsuits. The first was against the Atlanta-based Fearless Fund, which provides grants to support small businesses owned by Black women. The second went after two prominent law firms and their diversity fellowship programs.
Blum was also behind Shelby County vs. Holder, which ultimately gutted the Voting Rights Act back in 2013, as noted in a glossy Jan. 5, 2016, feature in The Guardian.
Blum told the Guardian he has worried over the fallout from that ruling, which spurred conservative legislators in Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere to revive laws that the Justice Department had previously blocked or was expected to block on the grounds that they were vehicles for minority vote suppression.
Those laws have introduced draconian voter ID requirements, cut back on early voting, and eliminated same-day registration.
“I think about it a lot, I worry about it a lot. I agonise over this,” Blum told the Guardian. “It may be that one or two of the states that used to be covered by Section 5 has gone too far.”
The very next day, Blum issued a clarifying statement, blaming the author for trying “to make a slanted point.” “Just because I have concerns about some jurisdictions imposing voting requirements that discourage participation, it does not follow that I have regrets about any of the past or current cases I have helped file. I have no regrets.”
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