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Justice Scalia’s Comments on Black Academic Ability Lack Context

Chris Stewart

It’s hard to imagine where exactly Justice Scalia was going during yesterday’s Fisher v. University of Texas arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citing points from an anonymous amicus brief, Scalia suggested that placing Black students in a scholastic environment such as that at the University of Texas could hurt them because they might not be able to keep up. Perhaps Black students might do better if they attended schools that weren’t as “advanced” or where classes didn’t move as quickly, he suggested.

We should find Scalia’s perceptions of Black students, their aptitudes, and intellectual capabilities troubling. It is views like this that reinforce the persistent and alarming institutional biases that harm people of color from birth to adulthood. Scalia’s failure to properly contextualize his point within the larger conversation on education in America is yet another example of conservative myopia about race.

We can’t discuss what goes on with Black students at the collegiate or post-graduate levels without acknowledging everything that leads up to those points. By every measure, America fails to provide our children access to quality education in a K-12 system that prepares them for college or a career. Often our children sit in classrooms with the least prepared teachers, incoherent curriculum, low expectations, and a lack of resources. Despite this, many of our students still manage to overcome their struggle and graduate from some of the most demanding universities. We will do better by providing strong supports for their success rather than attempting to assign them, once again, to lower rungs of education.

If Scalia is sincerely interested in the real barrier to Black students attaining higher education, he will need a primer about college costs. The number one reason why Black students do not earn an advanced degree is that many are unable to pay the rising costs of college education in America. In fact, more than quarter of Black men and women who dropped out of college cited financial difficulty as the reason they did not continue in school. It wasn’t an inability to learn, that classes that move too fast, or a penchant for excess partying—those are all tired myths based in very lazy and offensive stereotypes. Perhaps more importantly, those tendencies are hardly exclusive to Black college students. After you deal with college readiness, the biggest challenge facing our children who make it to college is not in the classroom, but in the bursar’s office.

The rising costs of higher education have severely outpaced any increases in average salaries, and that income gap has created very real problems for the ability of Black students to stay in school.

If Scalia has any question as to what can become of a Black person who is given the opportunity to succeed, he needn’t look any further than his colleague on the bench, Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court at just 43 years of age, having had an otherwise unremarkable career as a jurist. It would be easy to argue that there were a host of other potential appointees with far greater experience than Thomas and who were arguably more qualified. But after the loss of Thurgood Marshall, then-President George H.W. Bush needed another Black person on the bench, if only for the optics. Enter Thomas, and the rest is (a somewhat sordid) history. How ironic that Justice Thomas himself, someone Scalia considers erudite and whose opinion(s) he often agrees with, is on the bench as essentially the result of affirmative action.

The real conversation about Black college students should acknowledge that affirmative action and programs like it remain necessary because of a woefully uneven educational playing field in grades K-12. That uneven playing field creates similarly unequal points of access to the best colleges and universities.  One needn’t look any further than what has happened in California at Berkeley and other California state institutions there to understand that eliminating affirmative action would have dire consequences for Blacks and other minority students pursuing higher education.

According to the UC fact sheet, in 1995 approximately 4.3 percent of entering freshmen were Black. Since the elimination of affirmative action in California that same year, the number of first-year students has increased by 11,000, but the numbers of Blacks in those classes has dipped to around 4 percent. This is an example of what higher education would continue to look like all around the country without affirmative action in place.

If the goal is to achieve a post-Affirmative Action America, there will need to be a serious reckoning of the policies and practices that reproduce inequity from kindergarten through college. Unfortunately, shortsighted comments like those made by Scalia aren’t even a down payment on that discussion.

Chris Stewart is Director of Outreach and External Affairs Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation.