Monday's New York Times editorial page appropriates the U.S. Army as a case study to support the argument for race-based university admissions. The writer (Brent Staples) attempts to argue that affirmative action worked in the military, an important public institution, and it ought to be allowed to work in higher education, another important public institution. Unfortunately, I don't think the writer understands either institution nor the ways that both use race. Higher education and the U.S. military are very different, and you cannot analogize between the two for the following reasons:
1. The military and U.S. universities exist for fundamentally different reasons. The military exists to fight and win America's wars, and all other normative goals (fairness, equity, justice, non-discrimination, etc.) are subordinated to that end. It so happens that the military saw it needed to integrate in order to fight America's wars better, and that it could not run an effective conscription-based or all-volunteer force without fully integrating racial minorities. But this all flowed from the normative goal of military effectiveness, and the importance of unit cohesion for meeting that goal.
Universities, on the other hand, exist for far different reasons. Here in California, the 1960 master plan for higher education says the UC system exists for three reasons: teaching, research, and public service. These are significantly different from the goals of the military. There is no analog to combat effectiveness or unit cohesion in higher education. Indeed, many argue the reverse -- that we want universities to be diverse (intellectually and demographically), and we want to encourage civilized conflicts of ideas in the university. Thus, the arguments that exist for integration of the U.S. military do not work for the institutions of higher education.
2. The analogy also does not work for a very basic reason that goes to the heart of race relations in America. In civilian society, the government can tell schools, businesses and country-clubs to integrate, but they can't force individuals to actually get along. Put simply, the courts can tell a school district to admit minority children, but they can't force the teachers to like these kids, nor can they force the children to play together. In the military, things are different. Not only can the President order integration (as President Truman did in 1948), but senior officers and sergeants can order soldiers from different backgrounds to get along. Indeed, they must do so, in order to foster the kind of unit cohesion necessary to fight and win America's wars. More than any other place in society, the Army forces members of different groups to actually get along -- instead of just to tolerate one another.
3. A more concrete reason exists for why the military can't be used as an analogy to support the affirmative action fight. Last year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a very long and thoughtful order in Saunders v. White telling the Army to stop using race as a criteria for promotion. Why? Because the Army had done so well at using race-conscious measures to remedy past discrimination that it had effectively leveled the playing field in the Army for minorities. African-Americans and Latinos are now represented at proportional levels (or higher) at nearly all levels of command. In the NCO corps, minorities are actually overrepresented in the senior ranks. The time had come, the court held, for the Army to reconsider its use of race in light of the progress it had made since the 1948 Truman order. Today, the Department of Defense continues to use race, but in very circumscribed and targeted ways.
Bottom line: I wouldn't say that colleges have made as many strides as the Army when it comes to leveling the playing field. But they've certainly come a long way since the late 1960s and 1970s when they first created race-based preferences in the admissions process. This is especially true in graduate and professional programs, where admissions pools necessarily include the graduates of undergraduate programs that already level the playing field. If the undergraduate systems of race-based preferences are working at all, then we ought to seriously reconsider our use of extensive preferences at the graduate level. And we ought to imagine some future end-state where race-based preferences are no longer necessary at any level.