At West Point, Racism Becomes More Important Than Military Readiness


At West Point, Racism Becomes More Important Than Military Readiness

Oct 2, 2023 5 min read
Hans A. von Spakovsky

Election Law Reform Initiative Manager, Senior Legal Fellow

Hans von Spakovsky is an authority on a wide range of issues—including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration.
Cadets take the Commissioning Oath at the conclusion of ceremonies at Michie Stadium at West Point's graduation on May 27, 2023 in West Point, New York. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The admissions policy at West Point, one of our premier military academies, is even more blatantly racist than Harvard and UNC.

It assumes that soldiers of a particular race will be more likely to trust officers of their own race...because of their skin color.

Deciding who to admit to West Point should be based on who are the best, most qualified students to become military leaders, regardless of skin color.

Students for Fair Admissions, the same group that recently won a lawsuit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina challenging their illegal, racially discriminatory admissions policies, has filed a similar suit against the U.S. Military Academy. 

Shockingly, the admissions policy at West Point, one of our premier military academies, is even more blatantly racist than Harvard and UNC, both of which tried to obscure what they were doing to some extent. 

The dishonorable, racist policy described in the lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions should not only anger the public and every military veteran. It also presents a clear and present danger to the military’s effectiveness and readiness, and thus America’s national security. 

In a suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, SFA alleges that West Point has an explicit racial quota system that violates the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment, the group points out, has “an equal-protection principle that binds the federal government and is not less strict than the equal protection clause that binds the states” under the 14th Amendment. 

The Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory admissions policies of Harvard and UNC pursuant to the 14th Amendment.  The new lawsuit also cites multiple court decisions holding that the “military is subject to the Bill of Rights and its constitutional implications.”

My Heritage Foundation colleagues Paul J. Larkin, Charles “Cully” Stimson, and Thomas Spoehr analyze the effect of the high court’s ruling on the nation’s military academies in a paper published Sept. 15 and entitled “Should We Play Politics With the Nation’s Defense?”

For most of its history, West Point “evaluated cadets based on merit and achievements,” the suit by Students for Fair Admissions says. There is a good reason for that, argues SFA, besides the fact that such an evaluation is required under our Constitution and various statutes that prohibit discrimination:

America’s enemies don’t 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.

But that changed over the “past few decades,” according to the suit, when West Point started focusing on race, even to the extent of implementing explicit numerical goals—racial quotas —for the composition of every entering class.   

Race’s Place in Admissions

Admission to West Point is a two-step process.  The first step requires passing medical and physical fitness tests and being nominated by the president, the vice president, or a member of Congress. Once that happens, an applicant will be considered for admission.

It’s in that second step where race becomes a determining factor, according to Students for Fair Admissions. Fewer than 10% of applicants who make it past the first hurdle are accepted for admission into a class of between 1,200 and 1,300 cadets.

Race is so important in the admissions process that, according to the complaint, West Point “meticulously tracks its compliance with” the racial quotas it sets as benchmarks for each incoming class of cadets—“down to a tenth of a percentage point.”

West Point, along with some retired military leaders, has tried to justify this process by saying the racial proportions of the officer ranks should be the same as the racial proportions of the enlisted ranks and “mirror the demographic population it serves.” 

But as SFA argues, these claims are “tantamount to a declaration that West Point will never stop using race in its admissions.” 

Moreover, as Students for Fair Admissions points out, West Point’s claim that the process is necessary to fulfill the Army’s mission to defend the nation “is devoid of evidentiary support.”  The claim also reflects a patronizingly racist view of “soldiers primarily as members of racial groups, rather than as individuals,” the lawsuit alleges, and is “grounded in the assumption that minority service members all think and feel the same way.” 

This attitude is a fundamental betrayal of the military’s finest traditions. The suit says it reflects West Point’s assumption “that soldiers view their peers and superiors foremost in terms of race, rather than in terms of their ability or character traits like loyalty, devotion, and selflessness.”

Where the Evidence Falls

The attitude also assumes that “soldiers apply the same racial stereotypes to one another that West Point applies to them,” according to the suit, and is based on “crude and infantilizing stereotypes” about military volunteers. And it assumes that soldiers of a particular race will be more likely to trust officers of their own race, not because of their proven trustworthiness but because of their skin color.

Not only is there no evidence to support that assumption, Students for Fair Admissions argues, but “plenty of evidence” proves the opposite. West Point’s racist attitude, SFA says, “completely ignores reams of evidence showing that trust between soldiers is formed through battlefield performance, and that service members in war zones are more concerned with their leaders’ competency than with their skin color.” 

Effective military forces require “a colorblind warrior ethos for trust, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness,” the lawsuit argues. It says this type of racial discrimination in West Point admissions, which also has poisoned the promotion process in the Army, contributes to the military’s personnel and recruitment crisis. 

Students for Fair Admissions points out that “in-depth surveys and statistical studies” show that “the military’s emphasis on non-merit factors in admissions and promotion decisions is a leading cause of junior officer attrition.”

In a point that should give military leaders pause, SFA recalls that the arguments put forward by West Point to justify its current discrimination are nothing new. They’re virtually the same arguments made 65 years ago by opponents of desegregating the military.

The old arguments, just like those offered by West Point, “were long on racial stereotypes but short on actual evidence,” SFA says in the lawsuit. Fortunately, President Harry Truman didn’t listen to them—and we shouldn’t listen to the defenders of what West Point is doing today.

Shouldn’t Take a Lawsuit

Students for Fair Admissions seeks a declaratory judgment that West Point’s “use of race in admissions is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.”

The lawsuit says that the military academy’s defense of its use of race in admissions is identical to the losing arguments made by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Supreme Court rejected those arguments as insufficient to justify discrimination in the admissions process.

West Point’s admissions process is fundamentally unfair to the patriotic young men and women who want to serve their country and are willing to go through the tough training and make the many hard sacrifices that being a serving officer entail. 

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit against our oldest military academy, in operation since 1802, to end this practice. The situation reflects poorly on the Army officers who currently run this hallowed institution. 

Deciding who to admit to West Point should be based on who are the best, most qualified students to become military leaders, regardless of skin color. When race is West Point’s determining factor in admissions, it damages the professionalism of the officer corps in a way that will cost lives in future conflicts.    

This commentary was modified within 24 hours of publication to cite a relevant paper by Heritage Foundation analysts.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal