Justice Scalia's questioning was not in the least bit racist. Continue reading...
Last week Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that affirmative action (AA) might be counterproductive, because it encourages black students to attend highly selective colleges whose academic demands these students might not be well prepared to meet. AA might even lessen the likelihood of their successful completion of rigorous programs in the hard sciences.

Scalia’s comments, made during an affirmative action case before the US Supreme Court, prompted the recirculation of this editorial cartoon.

The cartoon, which I saw on Facebook, is the kind of commentary that makes the liberal cognoscenti chuckle up and down the East Coast. Ha ha. Such supercilious reaction only underscores the intellectual poverty of public discourse about race and inequality in America.

Scalia’s speculations, while arguable, are not implausible. Moreover, they can only be effectively rebutted by citing evidence, and not by calling names. Scalia's questioning was not in the least bit racist. He was (crudely, I acknowledge) referring to the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which holds that AA distorts the allocation of black students across competitive colleges, and that distortion adversely affects the college experience of AA's beneficiaries (by leading fewer to major in the sciences, etc.) There is good evidence supporting this view, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

These are not ideological issues, but social scientific ones. Scalia was not saying, as he has been accused of implying, that black students are congenitally unsuited to study technical subjects or attend elite schools. Rather, he was postulating that colleges vary in the intensity of the intellectual demands they place on students; and that students vary in the extent of their academic preparations for meeting those demands.

One aspect of Scalia’s concern -- supported by the work of scholars such as Peter Arcidiacono at Duke -- is that the net effect of affirmative action may be to leave many black students who are interested in the sciences, and who might have flourished at the less academically demanding colleges, on the academic margins at the more demanding schools.

Read this, for a brief introduction to the serious study of these matters:

In particular, take note of the passage below, and its quotes from Duke University’s Peter Arcidiacono. Arcidiacono’s careful analysis of the data at his home university showed that the black students -- who on arrival expressed a similar interest to pursue a technical curriculum but who, due to affirmative action, came with lower prior academic qualifications than their non-black peers – were significantly more likely than white or Asian students to abandon their initially expressed intention to major in one of the hard sciences before graduation. 

According to The College Fix: 

“Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke economics professor, was part of the three-person team that co-authored the study. Arcidiacono said he does not think people fully understand its implications.

‘People have written that my study says black students are taking the easy way out and have a poor work ethic,’ he said. “The paper says nothing close to that.’

Arcidiacono explained that while it is true that black students are much less likely to persist in certain majors, these differences disappear once the researchers distinguished students based on their academic background.

‘What we were excited about is that there are no racial differences in behavior once preparation for Duke is taken into account,’ he said.”

Name-calling is easy, but problem solving is harder. If one is interested in producing genuine racial equality of opportunity for college students in this country, given the facts on the ground, one will necessarily have to come to terms with a vast disparity by race in preparation and qualifications for advanced study in the technical curricula. To paint a conservative jurist like Scalia as a Ku Klux Klansmen is simply to adopt a comforting pose, not to make a serious argument, and it points us nowhere close to a solution. It also shows a scandalous contempt for the institution of the United States Supreme Court.

So, enjoy yourselves, liberal cognoscenti. And, while you’re guffawing, you can settle in for a few more decades of black "underrepresentation" in the STEM disciplines at the elite colleges and universities of America. Because name calling is not going to address the underlying developmental inequalities that make affirmative action necessary to achieve a greater black presence at America's elite institutions of higher education.