Justice Scalia Suggests that 'Slow-Track' Colleges May Be Better for Black People

Scalia was sitting right next to Clarence Thomas, the sole African-American justice, when he made these startling comments.

Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court, attracts headlines for his legendary, incendiary dissents. He gives talks about gay rights that push the envelope of polite speech. And he is an animated questioner of lawyers during oral arguments, eliciting more laughter from the audience than any of his eight fellow justices. 

But this week, Justice Scalia turned heads with some particularly troublesome comments about race. First, during a hearing about redistricting on Tuesday, he concocted a strange hypothetical scenario. Diving into a dispute about whether a commission drawing a state electoral map should be seen as illegitimate if only two of its five members had been motivated by partisan considerations, Justice Scalia offered this (springing from nowhere?) thought experiment: “Do you think if four of the justices of this Court voted a certain way in a case because they were racist, the opinion would still be valid because, after all, five of us weren't?"

An incredulous Justice Stephen Breyer promptly gave the back of his hand to his colleague’s statement. “I don’t know any court like that,” he said. He could have added that racist motives are usually well hidden, and, anyway, that there is no tribunal authorized to pronounce a Supreme Court opinion “invalid.”

But sometimes presumptions about race have a way of spilling out into the open, and on Wednesday, during the oral argument in an affirmative action case called Fisher v. University of Texas, Justice Scalia asked the university’s lawyer why boosting the number of black students at the state’s flagship campus is necessarily a good idea.

'I don't think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they're going to inferior schools.'         

- Lawyer Greg Garre before SCOTUS

Greg Garre, the lawyer, was beginning to warn the justices of the consequences of killing off affirmative action. “Experience tells us,” he said, that minority enrollments will fall off precipitously if racial preferences are abandoned. Where voters have cancelled affirmative action, “diversity plummeted, especially among African-Americans ... at selective institutions in California, Berkeley, ... UCLA, ... and the University of Michigan.”

Here Justice Scalia piped up, in a strident voice: “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 ... a slower-track school where they do well.” He then pointed to one of the amicus briefs in the case, presumably the one submitted by Richard Sander proposing the controversial “mismatch” theory, and misstated one of its contentions: “Most of the black scientists in this country,” Scalia said, “don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.”

Summing up, Justice Scalia suggested that classes at elite colleges are “too fast for them.” The University of Texas should rethink its desire to increase the presence of black students on its campus above percentiles in the low single digits. “Maybe,” he said, “it ought to have fewer.”

In a remarkable bout of composure, Garre calmly corrected Justice Scalia’s misconceptions:

“This Court heard and rejected that argument, with respect, Justice Scalia, in the Grutter case, a case that our opponents have not asked this Court to overrule. If you look at the academic performance of holistic minority admits versus the top 10 percent admits, over time, they fare better. And, frankly, I don't think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they're going to inferior schools. I think what experience shows, at Texas, California, and Michigan, is that now is not the time and this is not the case to roll back student body diversity in America.”

Those were Garre's last words before leaving the lectern. Scalia had nothing else to say.  


Image: UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: Kenya Battle, 17, a junior at Dunbar High School in Northwest, stands outside of the Supreme Court as the justices heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas case, which could limit affirmative action practices that colleges and universities use in admissions departments. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Related Articles

Finally, a world map that's all about oceans

The Spilhaus Projection may be more than 75 years old, but it has never been more relevant than today.

Surprising Science
  • Athelstan Spilhaus designed an oceanic thermometer to fight the Nazis, and the weather balloon that got mistaken for a UFO in Roswell.
  • In 1942, he produced a world map with a unique perspective, presenting the world's oceans as one body of water.
  • The Spilhaus Projection could be just what the oceans need to get the attention their problems deserve.
Keep reading Show less

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.