OPED: Rekha Basu: Scalia outdoes Trump
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came out with some statements so uninformed and prejudicial about black students last week that even Donald Trump, who makes regular headlines for his own uninformed, prejudiced statements, repudiated them. At least for a day or so.
Scalia's comments came during oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas, a case about whether the University of Texas could continue to use race-conscious admission policies to increase representation by minorities. In his questions, Scalia suggested black people would do better at "lesser" schools than the state university.
"There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school," the transcript shows Scalia saying — "a less — a slower-track school where they do well."
He then referred to a brief that, in his words, "pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them."
"Maybe it ought to have fewer," Scalia said of the university's black students. "And maybe some — you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less."
Where to begin refuting him? With generalizations like "they" and "them," to refer to African-Americans as a group, and to "competent blacks" as though they are the exception, Scalia implies that black students are intellectually inferior to white ones. That's a preposterous view for someone whose job is to uphold the constitution's guarantee of equal rights.
There are other ways to argue against affirmative action than by demeaning an entire race.
Does Scalia need reminding that President Barack Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, or that Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson graduated from Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School?
One could go on with the list of black high-ranking officials of both parties who were educated at elite schools, from Attorney General Loretta Lynch to former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Most U.S. presidents come out of a handful of elite universities. Good-name schools open doors to better jobs and postgraduate institutions.
On the other hand, where is Scalia's concern over former President George W. Bush getting into Yale because of a family legacy? He was only a mediocre student.
Affirmative action was conceived as a way to help compensate for historic discrimination against certain groups, including racial minorities and women. The idea isn't to admit unqualified students but, all other things being approximately equal, give those underrepresented groups a little extra consideration. So many factors go into admissions decisions anyway, that being qualified isn't just about grades and test scores.
It's also in a student's breadth of experience and perspective and perseverance in spite of adversity. Race-conscious admissions benefit society as a whole, because students learn from one another in ways that will make them better equipped to interact with a diverse population.
We know that being among advanced students helps bring a whole class' level up. We also know that those of whom much is expected, and in whom much is invested, tend to rise to the level of expectations. In suggesting inferior universities over a good public university for black students, Scalia seems guilty of what Bush referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Ironically the one African-American member of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, was reportedly silent through the oral arguments. A conservative appointed by George H.W. Bush, he has regularly opposed affirmative action despite himself having been the beneficiary of race-conscious hiring.
In his dissenting opinion from a 2003 Michigan Law School affirmative action ruling that state universities could use race as a factor in admissions, Thomas wrote, "While these students may graduate with law degrees, there is no evidence that they have received a qualitatively better legal education (or become better lawyers) than if they had gone to a less 'elite' law school for which they were better prepared."
Thomas also wrote,"These overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition." Yet he said he is fine with legacy admissions. Last year the Supreme Court upheld a subsequent Michigan law, passed by referendum, barring publicly funded colleges from granting preferential treatment to any group.
In a CNN interview aired Sunday, Trump said of Scalia's remarks, "I don't like what he said. He said the remarks were "very tough to the African-American community." However, on Saturday in South Carolina, Trump called Scalia "terrific."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called on Scalia to recuse himself from further cases involving discrimination. That isn't likely, but the next president could get to appoint several Supreme Court justices, as four of the current ones will be 80 or older during the next president's first term.
Supreme Court appointments have come up in some questioning of candidates, but mostly on whether there would be a litmus test on approaches to abortion. Now maybe we need to start asking candidates if they would appoint a justice who thinks black people belong in inferior schools.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.