WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday released audio of controversial comments made by Justice Antonin Scalia suggesting that some African-Americans might be better off at “less-advanced”universities, language that has caused a national uproar and spurred condemnation from elected officials including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Rep. John Lewis.
“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,” Scalia said Wednesday during oral arguments in a case involving a race-conscious college admissions plan. The 79-year-old justice, speaking to a hushed courtroom, then referenced a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said, “they come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Scalia said he wasn’t “impressed” that the University of Texas may have fewer African Americans. “Maybe it ought to have fewer. 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.”
Reid took to the Senate floor Thursday to condemn Scalia’s statements. Lewis, a civil rights icon who marched in Selma, released a statement saying he was “shocked and amazed” by Scalia. “His suggestion that African Americans would fare better at schools that are ‘less advanced’ or on a ‘slow track’ reminds me of the kind of prejudice that led to separate and unequal school systems—a policy the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional decades ago,” Lewis said.
Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was sitting in court when Scalia spoke.
“My first reaction was disbelief and disappointment,” Nelson said. “In a case with this much significance, for a Supreme Court justice to make comments that amplify the myth of racial inferiority, is deeply disheartening.”
The court does not allow video into the room or any type of live broadcasts of oral arguments and only releases audio at the end of each argument week. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pressured justices to permit live video, with no success.
While Scalia’s words reverberated outside the legal world, they were familiar to some of those who have been following the legal challenge to affirmative action in higher education.
One person who had no visible reaction to Scalia was Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks during oral arguments.
While Thomas and Scalia don’t agree on every case, they agree quite a bit.
Thomas, the only African American on the bench, has made clear that he thinks public universities should not take race into consideration. He dissented from a 2003 case that upheld the admissions program at the University of Michigan Law school.
And as for the lawyer who Scalia was addressing, Gregory S. Garre, he took the question in stride and was quick to respond forcefully. Garre, the former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, is defending the University of Texas against a challenge from Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Texas who is suing the university arguing she was denied admission based on her race.
“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,” Garre said in response to Scalia.
Garre has defended the university before the court on two separate occasions. Like others immersed in the affirmative action debate, he likely recognized that Scalia was referring to the controversial “mismatch” theory popularized by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. in their book, “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s intended to Help, and why Universities won’t admit it.” They filed a brief in the case, as did Gail Heriot of the University of San Diego School of Law.
“Research indicates that students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them towards the bottom of the class are less likely to succeed then similarly-credentialed students attending schools where their academic credentials more closely ‘match’ the typical student’s,” Heriot wrote.
Heriot was not in court to hear Scalia, but she read a transcript of arguments and she defends Scalia’s comments. “He was trying to articulate the extensive literature that shows race-preferential admission policies end up hurting rather than helping their intended beneficiaries, especially in the area of science and engineering,” she said afterwards.
“We do ourselves a great disservice when we jump all over people for failing to phrase a question in the best possible way,” Heriot added.
The first time the Fisher case was heard by the court in 2012 the justices issued a very narrow opinion and sent the case back down to the lower court to take another look.
In a concurring opinion, Thomas echoed the mismatch theory. “The University admits minorities who otherwise would have attended less selective colleges where they would have been more evenly matched,” Thomas wrote. “But, as a result of the mismatching, many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where underperformance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete” he said.
Thomas, and his other eight colleagues all attended elite universities, a point not lost on Nelson, who took Scalia’s comment to also be a dig at historically black colleges and universities.
“In additon to denigrating an entire group of students, he also denigrated many of the institutions that have successfully served African Americans when a majority of the institutions in this country would not,” she said.