Supporters of racial preferences have a new argument why the University of Michigan should be permitted to maintain a discriminatory admissions policy -- it's necessary to win the war on terror. At least that's the implication of a military brief supporting Michigan's policy by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other military luminaries arguing that without racial quotas the U.S. military would collapse like the French in May 1940.
The military brief is a boon to quota supporters, who can now claim that their race consciousness isn't a starry-eyed liberal obsession but a hardheaded imperative essential to the national defense. But the military brief is dishonest at its core, defending a Michigan system that has little or nothing in common with the military's successful efforts to diversify its officer corps.
When it comes to numerical preferences, the difference between the academies and Michigan is that between a thumb on the scale -- and a fist. According to an analysis by the Center for Equal Opportunity, when considering equally qualified black and white candidates, Michigan is 174 times more likely to select the black applicant. In similar circumstances, West Point is just two times more likely to select the black candidate.
A preference, yes -- but of a different order than Michigan's. The balance of the military's affirmative action is actually affirmative action -- aggressive efforts at minority recruitment and intensive training at preparatory schools for those who need it.
But minority students are indeed accepted to the academies with lower scores. What they experience once there is both a demanding and nurturing culture. Attending class is required, study hours are mandatory, and it is the duty of faculty and peers to help struggling students.
It is an environment perfect for pulling underprepared students up by their boot-straps. English professors at Michigan, in contrast, aren't empowered to give anyone "lawful orders" (except perhaps to deplore the racism in Mark Twain and denounce the sexism in Jane Austin). If a struggling black kid at an Ivy League school were relentlessly dogged by peers and faculty to work harder, the school would probably suffer a lawsuit and Al Sharpton-led sit-ins.
West Point and Michigan predictably have differing graduation rates. At Ann Arbor, the six-year graduation rate for blacks is 66 percent, and for whites 87 percent, the Center for Equal Opportunity reports. At West Point, the disparity is much smaller -- the four-year graduation rate for blacks is 67 percent, for whites 71 percent.
So defending Michigan's practices on grounds that they "work" at the academies is a sham. Schwarzkopf and Co. also argue that since ROTC programs at colleges and universities are essential to stocking the officer corps, race preferences at those schools are necessary for diverse officers.
But minority kids would still go to college without race preferences, just not to elite schools in the same numbers. And the military relies more on ROTC programs at historically black colleges than elite schools where Saddam Hussein is probably running even with President Bush in opinion polls.
In strict legal terms, the Supreme Court has held that considering race must advance a "compelling state interest" to be constitutionally permissible. Diversity in and of itself is not such an interest -- which is why the University of Michigan strains, implausibly, to argue that diversity helps students with their calculus.
The military, on the other hand, has a better case. The lack of black officers in the 1970s might have contributed to the breakdown in the Vietnam-era military, and a diverse officer corps can plausibly be considered important to good order and morale.
The most important point is that the potential problems with preferences at the academies are subsumed by a military culture that emphasizes opportunity instead of grievance, excellence instead of entitlement, and duty and sacrifice instead of the whiny sentimentality of contemporary liberalism. If Michigan and the Ivy League want to become more like West Point, wonderful -- but they probably would rather give up their treasured racial quotas before doing that.