In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s apparent endorsement of the claim that affirmative action hurts black scientists, professional physicists have written a letter to the Supreme Court denouncing the claims.
Scalia’s comments were made during oral arguments in Fisher vs. University of Texas, in which a white student claimed affirmative action policies prevented her from attending the university because of her race.
“We object to the use of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields as a paper tiger in the debate over affirmative action. We as professional scientists are in strong support of affirmative action policies,” the physicists wrote in the letter, which has been signed by more than 2,000 scientists.
Furthermore, “science is not an endeavour which should depend on the credentials of the scientist,” the physicists wrote. “Rather, a good scientist is one who does good science.”
A discredited theory
During the hearing, Scalia cited a legal brief in the case that he said made the provocative claim that some black students may do better at “less-advanced” or “slower-track” schools. It’s not clear which brief he was referring to, though it’s possible he was talking about one filed by two opponents of affirmative action
, lawyers Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow.
“One of the [legal] briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,” Scalia said. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
In their letter, physicists rejected Scalia’s claims, which are based on the so-called “mismatch theory,” which suggests affirmative action harms minority students by placing them in environments for which they aren’t prepared. Researchers say the theory has been widely discredited.
“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,” Richard Lempert, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Guardian.
Why we need people of colour in science
The physicists’ letter also took issue with questions from Chief Justice John Roberts, who expressed impatience about affirmative action. “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Roberts asked.
The scientists rejected the idea that minority students, or students of colour, are there simply to enhance the experience of white students, countering with the question, what unique perspective does a white student bring? Instead, we should be asking, “Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?” they wrote.
They also stressed that affirmative action is “just one part” of a larger effort to achieve social justice in scientific fields.
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