Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

"What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?"

18 December 2015
Supreme Court words elicit spirited responses in the media—including from 2200 physicists.

Science has been spotlighted in widespread, racially charged media discussion of the Supreme Court college-admissions-policies case Fisher v. University of Texas. Less visible but no less energized are the views of some 2200 physicists who signed an almost angry public letter challenging comments made in court by Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

According to a court transcript, Scalia said:

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 slower-­track school where they do well.... 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.... They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're ... being pushed ahead in ... classes that are too fast for them.... I'm just not impressed by the fact that ... the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some—­­you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less.... And ...­­ I don't think it ... stands to reason that it's a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.

Two questions from Roberts have also been widely discussed:  "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?" Followed by: “And I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?”

National Public Radio's veteran Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg explained the case and its antecedents in all their complexity in an online write-up and a broadcast piece for All Things Considered. At the Atlantic, the novelist, journalist, and legal scholar Garrett Epps detailed the case's long history, calling it the Flying Dutchman of American law. Epps portrayed it as dispiritingly convoluted and corrupted by artificial restrictions that stop litigants from saying plainly what they actually believe.

No such restrictions are muzzling onlookers and observers concerning Scalia and Roberts. In the courtroom itself, reported the New York Times, Scalia "drew muted gasps." A New York Daily News piece opened with this: "What a supremely outrageous thing to say." The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf emphasized that the "denunciations were fierce."

Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu argued this way:

With generalizations like “they” and “them,” to refer to African-Americans as a group, and to “competent blacks” as though they are the exception, Scalia implies that black students are intellectually inferior to white ones. That's a preposterous view for someone whose job is to uphold the Constitution. There are other ways to argue against affirmative action than by demeaning an entire race.

At the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley—identified as a senior fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute and as the author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed—expressed an opposite view in the op-ed "Scalia was right about race preferences." Riley began, "With the regularity of Old Faithful, honest remarks on racial matters these days are followed by geysers of liberal indignation and outrage." He asserted that affirmative action has "turned some of the smartest kids in the country into failures, in a misguided effort to obtain some predetermined racial mix on the quad." He reported, "Historically black colleges and universities, which are less selective than the top-tier schools, produce about 40% of blacks with undergraduate degrees in math and science, despite accounting for only around 20% of black enrollment."

Riley even widened the already volatile discussion to embrace other recent campus news stories, charging that not only do racial preferences "almost certainly result in fewer black professionals than likely would exist in the absence of such policies," but they "also have a long track record of poisoning the academic environment," with the "racial unrest on campus today ... a byproduct of college admissions schemes that place race above ability."

Some of the coverage has anecdotally examined specific cases. Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske visited the University of Texas at Austin to write the article "For black students at Texas, Supreme Court remarks are a burden added." Scalia's comments "provoked a swift outcry from African American UT students and alumni," she reported. "Some African American students said Scalia's comments underlined their ongoing challenge to try to feel safe and belong, especially in the sciences." She quoted the answer of senior pre-med major Christle Nwora to Roberts's questions: "It's this contact idea. The more contact I have with people who are different from me, the more I learn about them."

The Los Angeles Times also published the article "Black scientists respond to Scalia's suggestion that 'less advanced' classes are more suitable." Reporter Dexter Thomas consulted and quoted an MIT theoretical cosmologist, a Cornell biomedical engineer, and Sylvester James Gates Jr of the University of Maryland. Gates serves as the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and director of Maryland's Center for String and Particle Theory. Thomas reported that Gates believes he "would not be where he is today ... without informal affirmative action policies that began in 1969 and helped him gain entry to MIT."

Jedidah C. Isler, a National Science Foundation astronomy and astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, contributed the 17 December New York Times op-ed "Being black in physics class." She declared that Scalia and Roberts have "left many black scientists ... reeling from the psychological blow." As for herself, she wrote, "I wanted to scream my credentials from the rooftops: I have physics degrees from two historically black universities and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from an Ivy League institution."

In the Washington Post article "Dear Justice Scalia: Here's what I learned as a black student struggling at an elite college," Afi-Odelia Scruggs, a holder of degrees from the University of Chicago and Brown University, charged that Scalia's "comment came from 'mismatch theory,' which ironically advocates for the soft bigotry of low expectations." She declared that the "only thing new about the mismatch theory is the name. It’s actually the same old institutionalized racism that steered generations of African Americans into trade schools instead of universities."

Much of the public discussion has focused on mismatch theory, including a New York Times piece and the Guardian article "Supreme court's affirmative action comments are 'dead wrong' experts say." The Guardian quoted University of Michigan law professor Richard Lempert: “Study after study tells us that whether one looks at graduation rates or future earnings, minorities admitted to more selective schools with an assist from affirmative action do at least as well as and more often better than they could have been expected to do had they gone to less selective institutions.”

Friedersdorf in the Atlantic argued that "the debate over 'mismatch theory' is needlessly polarized." He prescribed further research. But in a letter to the editor addressing the Times article, William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson called use of the theory "deeply troubling." Bowen is a former president of Princeton University and of the Mellon Foundation. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and a former president of Macalaster College. They wrote:

It is dismaying when a Supreme Court justice pays no heed to a remarkably consistent set of social science evidence, preferring to rely on what he, from his august perch, believes “must” be happening. There are real issues in the affirmative action debate. The mismatch hypothesis is not one of them. It may or may not deserve a decent burial, but it should certainly be put to rest.

Mismatch theory also drew sharp criticism in "An open letter to SCOTUS from professional physicists," which says it was "drafted by the Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy group." The letter includes six footnotes citing academic papers. It has apparently drawn only limited media coverage, for example at Business Insider.

The approximately 2200 signers declare that they "strongly repudiate the line of questioning from Justice Antonin Scalia based on the discredited mismatch theory" and that they "are particularly called to address the question from Chief Justice John Roberts about the value of promoting equity and inclusion in our own field, physics."

Concerning Scalia, they share others' "outrage and dismay." They "strongly rebuke" his claim "that affirmative action prevents black people from becoming scientists." They "object to the use of STEM ... fields as a paper tiger in the debate over affirmative action." They "work continuously to educate [themselves] about the obstacles facing students of color."

The signers assert that "science is not an endeavor which should depend on the credentials of the scientist. Rather, a good scientist is one who does good science." They "hope to push [their] community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind, because the process of scientific discovery is a human endeavor that benefits from removing prejudice against any race, ethnicity, or gender." They add, "Indeed, science relies heavily on consensus about acceptable results as well as future research directions, making diversity among scientists a crucial aspect of objective, bias-free science."

They charge, "Minority students attending primarily white institutions commonly face racism, biases, and a lack of mentoring. Meanwhile, white students unfairly benefit psychologically from being overrepresented." The signers "argue that it is the social experience of minority students that is more likely to make them drop out, rather than a lack of ability."

They "reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good." They add, "Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant and ask, 'Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?'"

They continue:

This is what we see when we look at a minority student in a majority-white physics class: determination and an ability to overcome obstacles and work hard in stressful environments. We see this because we know that many students from minority backgrounds are subjected to social and political stress from institutionalized racism (past and present), a history of economic oppression, and societal abuse from both micro-aggressions and subtle racism. We believe that it is these qualities that make minority students able to succeed as physics researchers.

The signers propose that the "implication that physics or 'hard sciences' are somehow divorced from the social realities of racism in our society is completely fallacious." Then they charge that people are excluded "from physics solely on the basis of the color of their skin." They call this "an outrageous outcome that ought to be a top priority for rectification."

At the end, the petitioners write:

The rhetorical pretense that including everyone in physics class is somehow irrelevant to the practice of physics ignores the fact that we have learned and discovered all the amazing facts about the universe through working together in a community. The benefits of inclusivity and equity are the same for physics as they are for every other aspect of our world.

The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students. Minority students in a classroom are not there to be at the service of enhancing the experience of white students.

We ask that you take these considerations seriously in your deliberations and join us physicists and astrophysicists in the work of achieving full integration and removing the pernicious vestiges of racism and white supremacy from our world.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal