Race to the Top Brass

How Congressional Nominations to the Military Service Academies Produce a Racially Disparate Officer Corps

Senators and members of Congress disproportionately nominate White students to the United States’ competitive military academies and, thus, continue to cultivate a disproportionately White (and male) military leadership, according to a new report.

The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s (CVLC) Veterans Inclusion Project recently released the revelatory report, “Gatekeepers to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Congressional Nominations to the Military Service Academies.” Working with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, CVLC analyzed the little-studied and often opaque congressional process by which nearly three quarters of the cadet and midshipman classes are recommended for admission to the nation’s elite military academies: the United States Military Academy (West Point), the United States Naval Academy, and the United States Air Force Academy. Following a prior CVLC Gatekeepers report on gender disparities in the nominations process, the new data revealed just how few students of color are being recommended. The repercussions of these choices can be seen in today’s military leadership.

The report utilized over 20 years of academy and Department of Defense (DOD) data obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and litigation and focused on legislators who have nominated 10 or more applicants to the military service academies. Its findings were stark. Congress awarded Black students only 6 percent of total nominations and provided only 8 percent to Hispanic students, despite the fact that Black and Hispanic students comprise 15 percent and 22 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 to 24, respectively. Two hundred nineteen of the 371 members of Congress included in this report’s analysis granted less than 5 percent of their nominations to Black students and 49 members did not nominate a single Black student; 182 members of Congress nominated less than 5 percent Hispanic nominees, and 31 did not nominate a single Hispanic student. In contrast, 43 percent of the enlisted active-duty personnel are people of color.

The U.S. military has long been considered at the forefront of advancing opportunities for people of color, leading the way for integration before the civil rights era, and producing prominent military and national leaders including Generals Benjamin Davis, Colin Powell, Eric Shinseki, and current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Persons of color have long served valiantly in the military and given their lives in defense of this country. Recall that the first casualty of the American Revolution was a Black man, Crispus Attucks, and that many of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 442nd Infantry (Japanese American) Regiment (the most highly decorated for its size) gave their last full measures of devotion to a nation that had enslaved, segregated, and interned them. Despite its reputation as a vanguard of meritocracy – where the only color that matters should be camouflage – today’s armed forces continue to be plagued by systemic racism. This includes discrimination in the military justice system, as discussed previously in Just Security, the troubling finding that nearly one-third of active-duty personnel recently surveyed have witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism in the ranks, or the striking racial and gender composition of the overwhelmingly White and male officer corps.

The key to addressing these disparities is cultivating leadership and appropriate representation that reflects the makeup of our country and armed forces. As Defense Secretary Austin stated during his confirmation process, “recruiting a force reflective of the Nation serves as a critical component of our national security strategy.” His call for a military that represents the country it protects is being realized within the highly diverse enlisted ranks, but has fallen far short in the officer corps. This problem was identified in a 1972 DOD Task Force Report on racial inequality in the military justice system which concluded:

the armed forces comprise an institution of society, which is largely white at the top and in the middle, but is becoming increasingly diverse racially toward the bottom…. minority enlisted men’s attitudes towards an officer corps, which is easily observed to be almost entirely white …. will, inevitably in our judgment, resent leadership by a corps which does not contain a proportion of minority officers nearly equivalent to the proportion of minority members in the service… this causes a distrust of … the military system.

During the Obama administration, the official position of the government in affirmative action cases specifically cited to the service academies need to recruit highly qualified and diverse student bodies, prepared to lead a diverse force. An absence of unit cohesion and trust in the military between commanders and the rank and file presents a serious national security risk.

Congress, with its power to nominate applicants to the academies, plays a pivotal role in addressing that risk.

Admission to the academies is extremely competitive and requires both scholastic achievement and physical ability. A nomination to one of the academies is also required and must be provided by a member of Congress, or a non-congressional recommender, including the president, vice president, academy superintendent, or several other military-related sources. The ability to obtain one of these nominations requires access to the highest levels of political power in the nation. It’s no surprise that some guidance for obtaining a nomination has suggested utilizing family connections to representatives and senators and, in a system that privileges such access, White students received 74 percent of all nominations, despite only comprising 54 percent of the American population aged 18-24.

Securing a nomination is an essential step to getting into one of these elite military institutions. After applications are submitted, a selection process occurs, and it appears that through this, the academies are able to create a student body that more closely resembles the country’s diversity. However, the institutions are still disproportionately White, some more than others. The U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy have shown less progress than West Point in increasing the representation of Black cadets and midshipmen. The Air Force Academy’s 2010-2011 12-month enrollment was 6 percent Black, 8 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 75 percent White. In 2018-2019, its cadets were 6 percent Black, 11 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 63 percent White. Similarly, the U.S. Naval Academy’s 2010-2011 enrollment was 6 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, shifting only slightly in 2018-19 to 7 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 63 percent White. West Point has seen the largest rise in Black cadets—in 2010-11, its 12-month enrollment was 6 percent Black, 8 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 75 percent White. In 2018-19, West Point was 12 percent Black, 10 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 63 percent White. It is clear that the academies are somehow producing classes that are more diverse than the congressional nominations, but, without greater transparency into the nomination and selection process, and the data underlying it, it is unclear why. Even still, the disparity remains.

This creates significant downstream effects, as access to the academies has a significant impact on the future leadership of the military. While the three elite military academies only account for 20 percent of the officer corps, they disproportionately produce the leaders who eventually rise as the top brass in the Pentagon and who lead the military’s most prestigious commands.

So, what can be done to close the racial gap? Following the first Gatekeepers report, CVLC championed the PANORAMA Act legislation, introduced by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which was enacted into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021. It begins the process of increasing transparency and pulling back the veil on what the data reveals. It requires, in part:

  • The establishment of one central portal for members of Congress and non-congressional nominators to nominate students to all three academies, streamlining the highly decentralized nominations process. The portal will also collect and retain demographic data about each member’s nominations from year to year. Though this individualized data will not be publicly reported, the data collection and retention will allow each member to review their own nominating patterns and trends over time;
  • The adoption of uniform coding for racial and ethnic data. Currently, each school labels nominees’ races and ethnicities differently, making cross-academy comparison or combined analysis difficult. In the Department of Defense’s ongoing efforts to foster diverse military leadership, understanding and comparing how nominations are granted to future officers at each of the academies is a critical first step. The service academies have not followed the racial and ethnicity classification standards established by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the collection of their admissions data, but will now be required to. This is not an issue confined to the academies, as a 2019 GAO report on racial disparities in the military justice system noted that, “The military services did not collect consistent information about race and ethnicity in their investigations, military justice, and personnel databases.” In particular, the number of potential responses for recording race and ethnicity across 15 separate military databases ranges from five to 32 options for race and two to 25 options for ethnicity. This change will also bring the academies’ data collection practices into line with existing federal standards for racial and ethnic data reporting; and
  • That the Department of Defense publish an annual report detailing the aggregate racial and gender demographics of nominations for the most recent application year. These yearly data will better illuminate Congress’ role in promoting diverse candidates to the academies.

These are important first steps that will increase transparency and will help congressional offices and the DOD better recognize demographic patterns in the nominations process. Obstacles remain, however.

The nominations process is highly decentralized, inconsistent, and opaque. There are 435 members of the House and 100 Senators, as well as five delegates and one Resident Commissioner in Congress, and therefore, there may be as many as 541 different processes, criteria, and standards for obtaining a congressional nomination. While the PANORAMA Act will illuminate who is being nominated, it does not address how they are being chosen. Each congressional office sets its own selection process. In most offices, staffers assess, interview, and recommend the candidates with very little interaction from the legislator. Based on interviews with several congressional offices, the report found that staff members frequently employ a “holistic” model that evaluates qualifications such as character, scholarship, leadership, physical aptitude, medical fitness, and motivation. However, as former Representative John Hall (D-NY) stated, the “x factor” for applicants is often leadership ability. But how does one measure “leadership” or “character” in an objective fashion? If, for instance, an example of leadership is participation in extracurriculars, how would a staffer consider students who come from schools that lack resources to fund clubs, sports, or other after-school activities?

Reliance on “x factors” appears to dangerously mirror what has been described by current Black Air Force pilots as the “good dude factor,” which requires that in addition to professional aviation competency, an individual pilot in a flying squadron must “blend in with the community socially” – a prerequisite to promotional opportunities. This exposes Black pilots to highly subjective assessments and instructions, including as to how they speak or smile so as not to appear intimidating.

This is why one of the most important recommendations of the report is to have congressional staff and other panelists who are conducting interviews to undergo implicit bias training to recognize nontraditional markers of academy qualification and to avoid basing their decisions on their own implicit biases rather than the potential of the applicants.

Finally, there is also a key piece of data that remains outside of the reach of the public. Because congressional offices are not subject to FOIA, the report could not ascertain how many students of color applied for congressional nominations. The PANORAMA Act does not address this problem, although the CVLC Report does raise it and tries to take into account nominations relative to the district and state demographics.

Congress is the gatekeeper for the most elite of the military officers corps – they help determine the composition of the overwhelming majority of the academies’ cadets and midshipmen, and then decades later, confirm the commissions of these same people to general officer positions. We hope this report will be instructive to congressional offices and the DOD whom we encourage to examine and implement its recommendations. As for the 80 percent of the other officers who did not graduate from an elite military academy but instead received their commissions through ROTC, Officer Candidate School, through direct commission, or other means – one need only look at institutions such as the Virginia Military Institute, where the superintendent resigned in the wake of allegations of systemic racism at the school, including threats about lynching, vicious attacks on social media, and even a professor who spoke fondly of her family’s history in the Ku Klux Klan — to see that racial discrimination permeates nearly every corner of how the officer corps is selected and educated. These horrific allegations mirror those brought to light by a group of recent West Point graduates in their manifesto calling for an anti-racist West Point.

When President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948, the military helped blaze the trail of integration that other American institutions belatedly followed. But the work remains unfinished. At a time when the country is reexamining institutional racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Congress must consider how its own actions have historically contributed to racial disparities in the composition of the nation’s officer corps, and recognize that they now have the ability, tools, and responsibility to help build a more representative military leadership. Congress can play an essential role in helping to shape an elite officer corps that looks like the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the ranks, and the country they so valiantly serve.

The authors of this piece would like to acknowledge the dedication and hard work of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School: Kyla Eastling, Lauren Blazing, Sarah Purtill and Teddy Brokaw.

Image: President Donald Trump hosts Department of Defense leadership at the White House on October 7, 2019. 

 

About the Author(s)

Liam Brennan

Liam Brennan is executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. He previously served as a federal prosecutor, head of the Public Corruption Task Force in Connecticut, and visiting lecturer and Yale Law School. Follow him on Twitter @LBNewHaven.

Edgar Chen

Edgar Chen previously served as Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, as well as in the Office of Legislative Affairs and the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, at the U.S. Department of Justice.