WASHINGTON — Aspiring black scientists may do better in “lesser schools” where they don’t feel that “they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Wednesday during a hearing on an affirmative action case.
“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.
“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 — that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Scalia’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from several African-American leaders.
“Since he talked about science, let’s bring the science back to him,” said Dr. Edith Mitchell, president of the National Medical Association, which represents black medical professionals.
Scalia’s “comments and opinions are not based on the data or scientific analyses or principles,” she said. “There are many many [black] scientists and medical professionals… who studied at major institutions. Not only did they study there, but they have contributed to the advancement of science in this country and the world.”
Scalia’s statement is “unbelievable and offensive.”
Raynard S. Kington, Grinnell College
Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington, a former acting director of the National Institutes of Health, responded with similar outrage.
“I do not know the detailed context of Justice Scalia’s statement, but the suggestion that African-American students are not smart enough to go to academically challenging schools such as the University of Texas at Austin is just sort of unbelievable and offensive,” Kington said. He has researched the underrepresentation of blacks in scientific fields.
The actual data on black scientists’ educational background is not easy to pin down.
A 2008 report from the National Science Foundation found many of the undergraduate programs that produced the most African-American PhDs in science and engineering were historically black colleges and universities, such as Howard and Spellman. They weren’t alone, though: Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia were also high on the list.
After graduation, black scientists often face difficulty advancing their careers. A 2011 study published in Science found that black scientists were one-third less likely than white scientists to get a project funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The findings prompted NIH to launch an internal review of possible bias — a problem that continues to plague the institute.
Outside the courthouse, civil-rights activist Al Sharpton said he was “very concerned” about the tone of Scalia’s comments, Politico reported. “I didn’t know if I was at the courtroom at the Supreme Court or at a Donald Trump rally.”
The affirmative action case before the court Wednesday was brought by a white student who is challenging the University of Texas’ affirmative action program.