The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday ends a legacy of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia as well as persistent opposition to same-sex marriage and funding for Planned Parenthood. The passing of Justice Scalia most importantly presents an opportunity to even the playing field after generations of oppression and discrimination, as colorblindness in the college admissions process perpetuates the racial achievement gap in higher education.
Scalia’s death affects the outcome of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case currently before the Supreme Court in which the plaintiff, Fisher, argues that her rejection from the University violated her 14th amendment right to equal protection. According to Fisher, the University rejected her in order to accept a minority applicant with lesser credentials due to affirmative action policies. With Scalia gone, it is likely that the outcome of the case will change from a predicted 5-3 decision in favor of the conservative side, dismantling affirmative action in admissions, to a 4-3 decision. Since Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy currently serves as the swing vote. Certainly, the rhetoric surrounding the conservative wing of the Supreme Court illustrates why Kennedy’s decision will either destroy or preserve civil liberties in this country.
Scalia made his opinions on the case clear in December when he remarked the following: “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 … Maybe [the University of Texas] ought to have fewer. And maybe … 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.”
Of course, it is inherently unjustified for a white male of sound socioeconomic standing to speak on or understand — let alone decide or resolve — what constitutes the experiences of black Americans. According to the Cornell Legal Institute, affirmative action is “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination between applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.” With this understanding in mind, Scalia’s comments actually have little to do with the constitutionality of affirmative action and more to do with his own perception of black Americans as inherently inferior.
If the college admissions process is truly a merit-based system, not one in accordance to the distribution of resources, quality or otherwise, then maybe affirmative action would be of little importance. However, affirmative action is a socially responsible, institutionalized response to the structural and systemic racism that makes up the education system in America. Moreover, affirmative action policies address the fact that the majority of low-income students are minorities — which means access to quality curriculum, supplementary materials like textbooks, tutors and online resources and teachers are disproportionately unavailable to these students.
What people — specifically white students and administrators — need to understand is that applicants do not gain admission into an institute of higher education because of their race alone. The policies set in place, however, ensure that they are not discounted or relegated to a lower status because of their race. Affirmative action is not a racial quota system, as is assumed by many, or an advantage over white or non-minority students, but an equalizer. In response to Fisher’s claim of discrimination, it is important to note that she did not get rejected because she was not black or another minority — she was rejected because she did not have the merit to gain admittance. To those who oppose affirmative action, there is no such thing as reverse racism, and no one student received admission into a university because he or she was black alone.
Scalia’s remarks regarding black students illustrate the serious need for affirmative action. If a man with an advanced law degree, who is appointed to one of the highest positions in the U.S. government and is responsible for an unbiased interpretation of the Constitution, contends that black students are unqualified for higher education, it is clear the system that governs all realms of society is racist. Assuming that black students are not worthy of top-tier universities due to their socioeconomic standing is not only ignorant but also unjustifiable.
Above all else, it is important to note that affirmative action is quite simple, though it is often misrepresented as an unfair, outdated advantage. Even if that were to be true, affirmative action would still be token at best when compared to the unfair and long-standing advantage that is white privilege. While it is ignorant to assume that all black students come from low-income neighborhoods and are as a result less prepared for university life, it is fair to say that all black students have in some form or another experienced racism — a piece of acquired knowledge white students are not only lucky enough to never be scared by but also something they are entirely unaware of. Black students, in the face of racism, adversity and prejudice, are more than capable of not only gaining admittance into top-tier institutions but also excelling in academia. Affirmative action is necessary to ensure black students receive what they rightfully deserve — a college education.
Lida Dianti is a junior majoring in international relations. Her column, “That’s So Racist!,” runs Wednesdays.