Education

John Roberts: Why Do You Need Minorities In Physics Class?

The Supreme Court revisited the issue of affirmative action Wednesday, and Chief Justice John Roberts raised the questions of why, exactly, diversity is so important in science classes.

Fisher v. University of Texas is coming before the Court for the second time, having been heard once before in 2013. Abigail Noel Fisher was a prospective student who was rejected by the University of Texas under its holistic admissions policy, which allows race to be considered as a factor in admission. Fisher, who is white, sued, arguing racial preferences played a role in her rejection and are unconstitutional.

Last time, the Court sent the case back to an appeals court, but its return gives the justices another opportunity to reverse years of precedent and rule that racial preferences in public schools violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

One of the most commonly cited reasons given for practicing affirmative action in academia is that racial diversity provides additional perspectives that improve the academic experience. Gregory Garre, a lawyer for the University of Texas, argued for just such a benefit which invited a sharp question from Roberts.

“What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Roberts asked, according to a transcript of the hearing. “I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?”

Garre offered no argument for why diversity in physics is important, instead pointing to earlier Supreme Court cases which found that student body diversity is, in general, a good thing.

While Garre had no response, Roberts’ argument caused some degree of outrage on Twitter:

Antonin Scalia also appeared strongly critical of affirmative action’s value. Scalia argued that affirmative action results in academic mismatch, where black students are admitted to more-selective schools and then struggle in the more demanding academic environment.

“It does not benefit African-Americans to — 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. “Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.”

Some publications like Talking Points Memo criticized Scalia for his argument, but there’s evidence backing up his claim. Law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor have argued that affirmative action creates substantial “mismatch” that hurts racial minorities in the long run. The argument is disputed, however.

Whether affirmative action is actually eliminated, though, will depend less on Roberts and Scalia and more on Supreme Court swing justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy appeared uncertain about affirmative action’s merits at Wednesday’s oral argument, expressing frustration that the Court was hearing a case on the matter yet again but also showing frustration with Texas’s arguments in favor of diversity.

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