Hey, Wait A Minute

Quotas and Colin Powell

The real story of affirmative action in the Army.

“The issue, Mr. President, is not affirmative action but racial preferences,” declared Abigail Thernstrom to President Clinton at his “Town Hall” discussion on race in Akron, Ohio, Dec. 3. Clinton returned the volley: “Do you favor abolishing the affirmative-action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or No?” Thernstrom, co-author of an anti-affirmative-action tome (and participant in a current dialogue on race in Slate), responded that she does not “think that it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell.”

In the current Newsweek, Thernstrom amplifies: Yes, Colin Powell benefited from affirmative action. But the military has a good kind of affirmative action, which expands equal opportunity without making racial preferences. She offers as an example Powell’s promotion to brigadier general by President Carter’s Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander. When originally sent an all-white list of candidates for the position, Alexander rejected it, demanding a list that included some blacks. From the revised list, Alexander chose Powell.

As Jacob Weisberg noted in last week’s Slate, critics of reverse discrimination often insist that they support affirmative action. And they often point to the military as the one American institution that’s got the distinction right. The military, by all accounts, has indeed done a great job of integrating its higher reaches and achieving racial harmony without harming its ability to serve its mission. Affirmative action in the military is a success. But has the military avoided the alleged poison of reverse discrimination? Not at all. The real lesson of affirmative action in the military is that reverse discrimination is not so poisonous. It gave us Colin Powell.

Thernstrom’s anecdote about how Powell became brigadier general is ambiguous on its face. The boss asked for a list that included blacks and then chose a black off the list. Equal opportunity or reverse discrimination? A little more information resolves the ambiguity. One reason Powell wasn’t on the original list is that he was, at 42, below the age normally considered eligible for promotion to brigadier general. An exception was made in order to give Secretary Alexander a black as he had requested. Powell, who has always been forthright in his defense of affirmative action, says himself that he wouldn’t have appeared on the second list or been made the youngest general in the Army if it had not been for preferential treatment.

Thernstrom and others imagine the military as a place where (in her words) “people rise or fall according to their merits, not their race.” But this is a misconception. The services set stringent guidelines for minority recruitment and promotion that sometimes surpass the supposed excesses of racially obsessed university admissions officers. For instance the Air Force, long the most resistant of the services to affirmative action, recently changed its promotion policy to increase its number of black pilots. Now, 90 percent of black applicants are accepted, compared with only 20 percent of white applicants. Do you believe this is the result of pure “equal opportunity,” with nary a drop of “racial preference”?

Both the Navy and the Marines have set themselves five-year deadlines to make their officer corps 12-percent African-American, 12-percent Latino, and 5-percent Asian-American. In a Nation article supporting these quotas, an ex-Marine recruiter boasts of his tactic for meeting these goals: “I routinely turned down long lines of qualified white males to save room for blacks. I denied whites interviews. I put their names on waiting lists. Every few months I threw stacks of their résumés into the trash.”

But what about the Army–the service most celebrated for its history of colorblindness? The Army implemented its affirmative-action policy in the mid-’70s, responding to rising resentment of white superiors among the black rank and file, which had resulted in race riots on bases. To diversify its officer corps, the Army began targeting scholarship money disproportionately to ROTC programs at historically black colleges and began heavily recruiting blacks for West Point. At least 7 percent of each West Point class must be black. That’s an order.

Army guidelines explicitly require that the officer-promotion panels take candidates’ race into consideration. Promotions, the guidelines say, must roughly match the racial composition of the pool of candidates. The regulations naturally say that the panels should not lower standards simply to boost numbers, but affirmative-action plans often say similar things, and critics usually have little trouble seeing through it. Members of the panels are under heavy career and political pressure to meet goals. According to the Pentagon, more minorities and women have been appointed to promotion boards and explicitly instructed to act as advocates for the minority and women candidates who appear before them. To see that as expanding “opportunity” and not granting “preference” is wildly naive.

P romotions are reviewed by a Pentagon agency called the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute to ensure that the process was racism- and sexism-free. A recent article in the Weekly Standard showed that the officers who serve in the institute on a rotating basis are trained in lengthy seminars, rife with the goofiest sort of political correctness. In one class on the “White Male Club,” an instructor lectured: “Q: Who are the white males that sustain power over us? A: Ted Turner, Alan Greenspan, and Bill Gates.” In other sessions, they were required to confess their own biases and were shown videos from the Oprah Winfrey Racism Series.

So if the mechanics of affirmative action in the military mimic those of affirmative action in higher education, why hasn’t the military taken the same flak? Unlike the universities, the military has none of the notorious statistics about dropouts and racial separatism and it has many success stories, such as Colin Powell’s. The military’s officer corps, especially the Army’s, has been successfully transformed from a clubby elite, where promotions depended on golfing partners, into a more integrated meritocracy.

To be sure, the Army’s program insists, though more vaguely than people admit, that affirmative-action beneficiaries must meet the same minimum qualifications as their white counterparts. But there is a critical difference between being qualified, in the sense of meeting some minimum standard, and being better qualified than all those who are rejected. Choosing a black over a better-qualified white is still racial preference, even if they both are “qualified” in the absolute sense.

The main difference between military and civilian affirmative action is that the military has an overabundance of minority candidates. Consequently, the Army can eliminate its weakest candidates–about one-half of blacks and one-third of whites–and still have a large number of blacks–about one-third of the Army. Most universities and federal agencies must compete aggressively over a much smaller pool.

When affirmative action works, its critics deny its essential nature. For affirmative action to do anything, it must involve advancing people who are slightly less qualified. Not, one hopes, unqualified, but less qualified, under otherwise prevailing standards, than people who get passed over. It is necessarily a sloppy process that injects another arbitrary standard into an already arbitrary decision-making process. But the Army shows the process can work, and can help.