Lawmakers are far more likely to recommend White students to attend the military's service academies than minorities, a report released Wednesday found.
According to the study from the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center's Veterans Inclusion Project, members of Congress have nominated White students disproportionately more than Black, Hispanic or Asian and Pacific Islander students.
"As a result, underrepresented students across the nation do not have equitable access to the service academies, and are denied the lifelong opportunities that an appointment can provide," the report states.
The disparity in nominations has long-reaching consequences -- affecting not just the academies' student bodies, but the makeup of the military's officer ranks and leadership. The military often chooses academy graduates for leadership positions, and many of the services' top-ranking officers, such as chiefs of staff, earned their commissions there.
The revelations come as the military is increasingly focusing on racial diversity in its ranks and trying to remove barriers that unfairly hinder minority troops' opportunities for advancement.
The center also found a wide gender disparity in a 2019 study, which showed members of Congress had nominated more than three times as many men to attend service academies as women.
Anyone who wants to attend the Army's U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York; the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, must first get an official nomination. Nominations can come from sources including the president, vice president, military service secretaries, or the academies' superintendents. But about 60% to 70% of students at the academies were nominated by their local senators or representatives, the report states.
The military academy system limits how many cadets or midshipmen can be nominated by an individual lawmaker. Each lawmaker can have up to five "admits" to each academy, for a total of 15 at any given time. When a slot opens up through an admit's graduation or withdrawal, that lawmaker can nominate up to 10 new candidates to fill the vacancy. Typically, the report said, a lawmaker sees about one vacancy open up each year at each academy, making these nominations particularly prized.
The application process usually starts during a high school student's junior year, when they begin submitting a series of applications for a nomination to attend an academy. But the nomination process and requirements vary widely from one lawmaker's office to another. Generally, staff members review applications and choose candidates to interview. Assessments often evaluate factors such as character, scholarship, leadership, physical aptitude, medical fitness and motivation, the report said.
Lawmakers usually play little direct role in the evaluation process, often delegating the task to staff or volunteers. Once the candidates have been selected, the lawmakers submit their slate of nominees to the academies to select from, the report said.
Some of the racial disparities could be attributed to the demographics of the lawmakers' districts, the report said -- but not all. The center's research found that, even taking demographics into account, White students are greatly overrepresented.
The problems don't end when minority students are admitted to the academy, the report found; they often face discriminatory treatment during their service.
Even though minority troops have proudly served since the Revolutionary War, racial representation has historically been lacking at the three academies, the report states. The Naval Academy didn't graduate a Black student until 1949; the Air Force Academy didn't do so until 1963. The first Black cadet enrolled at West Point in 1870, the report said, but entire decades passed during which no Black cadets graduated there.
Wesley Brown, the first Black midshipman to graduate from the Naval Academy, received the silent treatment from many fellow mids. He received so many discriminatory demerits he was nearly dismissed, but Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who nominated him, stepped in.
The center obtained records of lawmakers' nominations for the three academies going back to 1994 in a series of Freedom of Information Act requests. Researchers then analyzed the nominations of currently serving members of the 117th Congress who had more than 10 nominations -- 81 senators, 285 representatives and five delegates.
The results were stark. Only 6% of total nominations went to Black students; 8% went to Hispanic students.
Of those 371 lawmakers, 219 granted less than 5% of their nominations to Black students. And 182 lawmakers gave less than 5% of their nominations to Hispanic students.
The center also found 49 lawmakers did not nominate a single Black student during the 25 years studied; 31 did not nominate any Hispanic students.
Even though White people make up 54% of the U.S. population aged 18 to 24, the center found that White students received 74% of academy nominations.
Democrats were more likely to nominate minority students, according to the center. Between 2009 and 2019, House Democrats gave 32% of their nominations to minority students, versus 15% for House Republicans. On the Senate side, Democrats gave 20% of their nominations to minority students vs. Republicans' 13%.
However, both Democrats and Republicans under-nominated young minority students compared to the demographics of their districts.
The center recommended that the Defense Department publish data annually, for each member of Congress, showing how many candidates members nominated to each service academy, broken out by race, ethnicity and gender.
The military also should consider race, ethnicity and gender when awarding its discretionary nominations and appointing qualified alternates, the center advised. It added that the military should investigate how congressional nominations are distributed and study how that affects academies' diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The center also advised Congress to make sure the military properly collects and reports nominees' demographic data and to order it to award supplementary nominations to lawmakers who equitably nominate students from underrepresented groups.
And it recommended that individual lawmakers should do more to track the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of applicants; build relationships with high school and middle school counselors to find promising minority students; and focus on improving diversity in their outreach efforts and interview processes.