Wrong to target minorities for military but not college

Friday, April 11, 2003 at 12:00am

Diego Fernando Rincon. Jesus A. Suarez Del Solar. Jose Gutierrez. Those are just a few of the Hispanic-American soldiers killed in Iraq. Then there are Jamaal R. Addison of Conyers, Ga., Brandon U. Sloan of Cleveland, and William W. White of Brooklyn � all African-Americans who lost their lives serving their country. After Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian with Navajo and Hispanic blood, was killed in action, friends said her spirit had returned to her hometown of Tuba City, Ariz., in the form of a spring snowfall.

Why identify these soldiers by race? Partly to recognize their valor and extend our gratitude. But there's a larger issue here. Young Americans of color are dying overseas while here at home the administration that sent them into battle is fighting in the Supreme Court to ban affirmative action in the nation's colleges.

Isn't there a contradiction here? Why should military recruiters target minorities � the Navy even does commercials in Spanish � while college recruiters are supposed to stay "race neutral"?

This does not make sense to us, and it doesn't make sense to a star-studded group of retired generals and admirals who filed a brief in the Supreme Court strongly challenging the administration's position on affirmative action.

The argument in their brief is a simple one. Since the military's enlisted ranks are heavily non-white � 37 percent, according to the Pentagon � the officer corps should be as well. And since most officers come from either the service academies or college ROTC programs, affirmative action is a matter of national self-interest.

"Based on decades of experience," the retired officers wrote, "a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps, educated and trained to command our nation's racially diverse enlisted ranks, is essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security."

President Bush is clearly not a racist. More than most Republicans of his generation, he has effectively reached out to minority voters and will again when he runs for re-election. But when it comes to affirmative action, Bush has decided to please another constituency � those of his supporters who denounce any form of racial preference as "reverse discrimination." That includes the current legal standard, set out in the famous Bakke case of 1978, which bars strict racial quotas but permits race to be used as a factor in promoting student diversity.

To the retired officers, reversing Bakke would be a disaster, and they point to history. In 1973, only 2.8 percent of all military officers were African American. During Vietnam, that led to a crisis in the armed forces, according to the officers' brief: "African-Americans troops, who rarely saw members of their own race in command positions, lost confidence in the military as an institution.�

Today, non-whites comprise almost 20 percent of the officer corps, a number still well below the enlisted ranks but enough to make a huge difference. Repealing affirmative action now, the brief concludes, could mean "severe consequences to our nation's welfare."

It is true a good soldier will fight for any officer. In the interests of both efficiency and equity, however, non-white officers are essential, and so is affirmative action.

Think, too, about Jose Gutierrez and Diego Rincon, William White and Lori Piestewa. They won't be coming home from this war, but a lot of soldiers who look and sound like them will be.

If we recruit these young people into the army, shouldn't we also recruit them into college? If we train them to shoot, shouldn't we also train them to study? If they serve their country by fighting and dying, don't they also serve by learning and leading?

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

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