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On Thursday, June 29, 2023, a heavily conservative Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, to effectively strike down race-conscious admissions processes in higher education institutions across the country. Unsurprisingly, legacy admissions, another form of affirmative action, remains intact.
As Black and brown students across the nation are dealing with the aftermath of overturning fifty years of race-based affirmative action, I want to draw attention to a puzzling message the Court left us — hidden in a footnote. Buried at the bottom of page 22 of the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts ’76 wrote, “the Court exempts military academies from its ruling in light of ‘the potentially distinct interests’ they may present.”
The Court does not suggest any specific reasons as to why military academies are exempt from this ruling. Instead, the justices seem willing to levy a blow to racial diversity only in traditional classrooms. Exchanges from the oral arguments suggest the reasoning for the decision was a vague — and potentially unfounded — claim that removing race-conscious admissions practices from military institutions could have implications for national security.
By stating that military academies stand to benefit from race-conscious affirmative action, the Court appears to blatantly admit that diversity is both beneficial and necessary in those spaces. In the military context, it seems the Court is not shy about conceding that diversity might just work.
Regardless of the opinion’s ambiguous language, this footnote implies something far more sinister: Maximizing the utility of Black and brown bodies is more salient than ensuring that they receive an equitable education.
The United States has a long history of mistreating Black soldiers, one that dates all the way back to the Civil War and past. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, “runaway fugitive slaves” were encouraged to enlist as Union soldiers in the Civil War. In other words, they were asked to die for a country that had no intentions of granting them their freedom.
On January 13, 1866, an unnamed Black soldier from South Carolina wrote a letter while stationed at Morris Island to Major General Daniel E. Sickles of the Union. Today, Sickles is known as one of the most prominent soldiers of the Civil War. In this letter, an unnamed Black Union soldier begged to be let free, patiently reminding Sickles that himself and his fellow Black soldiers were promised freedom and payment after fighting in the war.
As the daughter of a veteran, the realities of being Black in the military today are familiar. The predatory military industrial complex often targets Black and brown youth to enlist, but it fails them once they become veterans. In fact, Black veterans are denied Veterans’ Agency health benefits more often than white veterans. In response, the VA seems to be desperately trying to save face, launching a new Agency Equity Team intended to examine why these resources are so inconsistent for veterans of color.
This is not to say that efforts to increase diversity in the military are inherently conspicuous, but the social stereotype that Black and brown youth are ripe to be pigeon-holed into military branches is far too widespread.
Still, there is another potential explanation for the Supreme Court’s military exemption: In the wake of widespread high school closures throughout the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the military has failed to recover from a significant decrease in recruitment numbers.
Through this lens, then, the Court’s footnote might suggest that their solution to this problem is to discourage Black and brown enrollment in higher education, in hopes of redirecting those groups to the military.
But what are the dangers of telling Black and brown youth that their only “way out” is to join the military?
Military academies often fail to take accountability when instances of racism or discrimination occur. Even one of our nation’s most prestigious military academies, West Point, continues to be the site of Confederate memorialization. There, students of color have opted to create Instagram accounts that celebrate their diversity and offer a forum to discuss their experiences with discrimination — which are, unfortunately, quite expansive. Instances of verbal violence, like racial slurs, often go ignored even when they are reported to superiors.
Almost two centuries after the unnamed Black Union soldier’s letter, SCOTUS has not only proven that they will do whatever it takes to stall equitable improvements to civil rights, but they’ve made it their job to decide who lives and who dies.
Ebony M. Smith ’24 is a Government and African & African American Studies Concentrator living in Eliot House. Her column “EBONY at Harvard” runs biweekly on Mondays.
Editor’s Note: We have decided to turn off comments on “EBONY at Harvard” due to concerns raised by the writer over targeted racialized comments left on her past work or similar pieces.
— Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, Editorial Chair
— Christina M. Xiao ’24, Editorial Chair
— Cara J. Chang ’24, President
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