U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s suggestion that Black students do not belong at top-tier universities but at less rigorous schools has sparked widespread outrage among many who call the remarks racist and out-of-touch.
The divisive jurist made the comments Dec. 9 during oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which the high court—for the second time—reviewed the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ consideration of race in its undergraduate admissions policy. Abigail Fisher, a White woman filed the suit in 2008 after she was denied admission. She said the school discriminated against her on the basis of her race, giving preference to less qualified minority applicants.
Scalia seemed to question whether affirmative action placed African-American students in schools that were too challenging for them.
“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 less—a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said, according to the transcript. “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.”
Gregory G. Garre, the university’s attorney, attempted to cut in but was blocked as Scalia continued.
In this Oct. 20, 2015 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., on Thursday blasted Scalia for uttering what he called “racist ideas” from the bench of the nations highest court. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
“ 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. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. … And I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”
Garre, however, disputed the underlying argument in Scalia’s statement.
“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 told the court’s longest-serving justice. “I think what experience shows, at Texas, California, and Michigan, is that now is the time and this is not the case to roll back student body diversity in America.”
While Scalia apologists have argued that his statements are being misinterpreted, detractors say they were in line with the conservative justice’s penchant for making offensive statements.
“These ideas are racist in application if not intent,” said U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, on the Senate floor on Dec. 10. “It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench of the nation’s highest court.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Similarly, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights legend, assailed Scalia’s comments as a throwback to the Jim Crow era.
“I was shocked and amazed by Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments in the Fisher v. University of Texas case,” Lewis said in a statement. “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.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D) a former trial and appellate judge for 15 years, said Scalia’s “inflammatory” comments revealed a bias that warranted censure and undermined the authority of the Supreme Court.
“Justice Scalia’s comments were disgusting, inaccurate, and insulting to African Americans, and his statements undervalue the historic achievements we have made,” the North Carolina congressman said. He added, “Justice Scalia has removed any presumption of impartiality and should recuse himself from the case. His comments were improper and warrant review by the Judicial Conference of the United States to consider his removal from the bench.”
Celebrities and a host of others chimed in on social media.
Actress Rashida Jones, the daughter of legendary music producer Quincy Jones, said of Scalia’s statements on Twitter, “This is racism. Any way you cut it. No spin. Or are you going to tell me I am illiterate now?”
Tony Award-winning producer and African-American actor Wendell Pierce, of “The Wire” fame also commented, “I have always known there are those in this country that see me as less than any other because I am Black. Scalia reminds us of that racism.”