The U.S. Says No to Affirmative Action—Until It’s Time for War

Kinjo Kiema

In late June, the Right won a decades-long fight to overturn affirmative action when the Supreme Court ruled, in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, that considering race in college admissions violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The case that ultimately landed before the court’s 6-3 right-wing majority was brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group that for years has challenged the admissions policies of schools like Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Across the country, conservatives cheered.

But buried in a seemingly small footnote in the decision was a caveat that is just as telling about race and opportunity in America. In Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion, the Supreme Court allowed race-based admissions to continue in one place — military academies, which the Court declared have ​“distinct” and ​“compelling interests” that warrant an exception.

The decision’s finding that affirmative action is acceptable in the military, but nowhere else, encapsulates how the United States has never seen Black people as full citizens: declaring we aren’t worthy of educational investment, but are worth training to die in U.S. wars. It also demonstrates how for Black people, the opportunities offered by the military can amount to a no-win situation. 

The ​“Poverty Draft” 

Affirmative action was created in the 1960s to make access to education and jobs more available to people of all races. While there’s a myth that affirmative action means accepting or hiring Black people into schools or for jobs over better-qualified white applicants, in reality, it’s just preventing us from being deliberately excluded when we qualify.

Before affirmative action, institutions could legally discriminate against Black students, but affirmative action ended that, on paper at least. (Ironically, it’s not Black people who have benefited most from the policy, but white women.) Now that affirmative action has been overturned, it’s likely universities will reduce the number of Black students they admit. And that may have implications for Black people’s relationship to the military as well.

Both higher education and military service have long been touted as tickets out of poverty and into the middle class. For almost as long, the two have been linked, with the military promoted as a key way for low-income students to get an education they couldn’t otherwise afford.

One 2011 survey found that 75% of military members said they’d joined to get access to education. This exploitative bargain is so ingrained that in 2016, when the question of making college free became a prime presidential campaign debate, some military experts opposed the prospect for the impact it would have on recruitment.

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on August 28, 2023.

About the Author: Kinjo Kiema is a Kenyan-American organizer and writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @captain_kinj and read her writing at www​.kin​jok​iema​.com.

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