The Supreme Court isn't expected to rule until June on a challenge to an affirmative action policy that increases black students' chances of being admitted to the University of Texas. Perhaps Justice Antonin Scalia will use that time to remove the foot he put in his mouth with paternalistic comments that seemed to suggest African Americans should avoid challenging academic settings.
It was disturbing that Scalia based his assessment on a legal brief that cited a questionable study that has been discredited by some researchers. That is not the caliber of judicial scrutiny one would expect from a Supreme Court justice. Scalia's comments suggest that oral arguments in the case were wasted on someone whose mind was already made.
At issue is the admissions system used by the University of Texas. About 75 percent of incoming freshmen qualify for admission by finishing in the top 10 percent of their respective senior classes. That procedure provides some diversity because many Texas schools are dominated by a specific race or ethnicity. The rest of the freshmen are selected based on leadership skills, economic obstacles, race, and other criteria.
Even with those policies, the UT student body has never been more than 6 percent black, while the state population is 12 percent African American. Nevertheless, a white woman denied admission to Texas filed suit in 2008, claiming the university's diversity goals had cost her a spot. Abigail Fisher has since graduated from Louisiana State University, but her case has reached the nation's highest court.
The Supreme Court in 2003 ruled 5-4 that race may be a factor in college admissions. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." It has been only 12 years, but Scalia apparently sees no reason to delay the death of college affirmative programs.
Scalia suggested that college diversity efforts may do more harm than good. Citing the legal brief, he said most black scientists "come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them." Rather than applying to Texas, the justice said, black students might do better to apply to "a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well."
It's hard to believe those words came out of the mouth of the nation's first Italian American justice. Scalia's immigrant parents pushed him to excel despite ethnic stereotypes. How could he so casually suggest to African American students who want to be challenged in college that they should do themselves a favor and not try? A Supreme Court justice should be more careful about the implication of his remarks before he makes them.