Yesterday, I read the Supreme Court oral argument transcripts for Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin II [PDF], a case about race-conscious college admissions policies. And boy was my monitor getting a whole lot of side eye!
A Brief Refresher
You may remember that this case arose when Abigail Fisher, who is white, was denied admission to UT in 2008. Rather than just charging that to the game, Fisher made a federal case of things—alleging that she was denied admission not because of her academic record, but because a person of color took her spot. In sum, she argued that UT’s policy of considering race with 11 other holistic factors (e.g., leadership, family circumstances) for candidates not in the top 10 percent of their high school class is unconstitutionally discriminatory to white applicants.
UT defends its policy saying that increasing diversity on campus is a compelling state interest, and its consideration of race among 12 holistic factors is narrow enough to achieve that goal without running afoul of the Constitution. The outcome of the case could have wide-ranging impact on the use of race in college admissions decisions for state and public universities.
Why Student Diversity Matters
Earlier this year, NWLC co-wrote an amicus brief with nearly three dozen women’s and LGBT groups in support of UT. The brief argued that colleges need student diversity to combat stereotypes about students of color, including women and people who identify as LGBT, as well as to increase diversity of thought in classes, combat underrepresentation of women and students of color in certain disciplines, and prepare students to work with people from a variety of backgrounds—all of which are compelling state interests. You wouldn’t think this needed to be reiterated. After all, the Supreme Court affirmed the benefits of affirmative action three years ago in Fisher I and several times before that.
Yet judging by their questions and statements, it seems some justices forgot this point.
Have Several Seats, Justices
Justice Scalia is catching the most heat for saying African American students might benefit more from a “less advanced school [than UT or] a slower track school where they do well” and speculating that affirmative action deprives “lesser schools” of “really competent blacks.” Justice Scalia fully deserves sharp criticism for employing the “black people are unintelligent” stereotype as an argument against a policy that would disabuse him of that very notion. As UT alum Neil deGrasse Tyson noted, black people being more visible in science “would have a greater force on society than anything else” by undermining the stereotype that African Americans are dumb.
But Chief Justice Roberts’s question of “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” irked me just as much. This question presupposes that people of color have nothing of merit to offer in STEM fields—as if a desire to mathematically explain nature, marry social awareness with science, apply physics knowledge on Wall Street, or dance in outer space are concepts that are either beyond the grasp of people of color or unworthy of academic study because they are proposed by a person of color. It’s this attitude that makes it harder for many women, especially women of color to study STEM or be taken seriously in STEM careers.
The perspectives of minority students and women of color are shaped by individual life experiences that, in one way or another, have been influenced by race and gender. These perspectives are valuable not only in academic study, but also in shaping a workforce that is increasingly diverse, multicultural, and global. I hope the Supreme Court remembers this when it issues its decision in June.