How justices of the supreme court accidentally just made the biggest argument SUPPORTING affirmative action for university admissions

Pretend one of these justices is instead head of admissions for an elite university. Of course he got there by his single minded hard work and brilliance with help from no one. I am sure his family also rose to their success by their own boot-straps (with no benefits of some prior free labor…but that’s a whole other debate). Back to our head of admissions. Across his desk comes two applications. Both applicants are exactly equal academically (same test scores, same GPA, high-schools were ranked equally rigorous, they even took classes of equal rigor etc.), they play the same sports, have the same extra-curriculars. You get the point. They are the same. Except one thing is different. One looks more like our head of admissions and the other looks ….different…. a minority student. Lets pretend that in every case like this, the one who looks most similar to the person doing the admitting is accepted (and I won’t be upset if you interpret “lets pretend” to mean “this is historically what was happening before affirmative action mandates came along”). In my opinion, this would happen for 3 main reasons:

  1. The person doing the admitting is human. Human beings identify with, and are more comfortable with, other people that are similar to themselves (yes, this works both ways, and becomes a problem if the individuals in power are almost exclusively of one type over another).
  2. This person sees little value in diversity itself (this is despite the data demonstrating the great value that diversity adds to almost any enterprise and certainly in learning and education. ). To quote Justice Scalia himself “Maybe it aught to have fewer [blacks]” (pg 68, line 2  “It” being the University of Texas.  And this is not an isolated devaluing of diversity since Justice Roberts queries elsewhere “I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?” (Pg 55, line 22).
  3. This individual really fundamentally believes, deep down inside, that the minority applicant is academically (and perhaps otherwise) inferior. Whether this is a conscious perception or unconscious doesn’t matter (although if you verbally state that African American students should go to “slower track” schools because they are academically not capable of the challenge it is hard for me to argue that you aren’t conscious of your feelings. Pg 67, line 15). This belief remains even when the data demonstrating that this is not the case is on the desk in front of him (the applications in my above hypothetical scenario).

So to answer Justice Scalias question on Pg 33 (line 6-8), Yes!  Because prior to Affirmative Action type mandates, ‘benefits” were already occurring, however they were universally slanted AWAY from benefiting minority students (so you have kind of argued FOR affirmative action if your question was meant to point out some unethical ongoings).  Except the forced “benefit” here is to correct the blatant, unfair, and unethical treatment minorities had been facing for years prior to it. To right the wrongs that would continue in many institutions if not mandated (Now. If you can change human beings into being unbiased, and without preconceived perceptions, and transport them to a place where they don’t remember the history that this nation was built upon….then yes, you can probably do away with these laws…but this is America…not utopia…so we can’t).

I respond to the inferences and statements made by these two judges, as I always have, by simply allowing my work and contributions to speak for themselves. It’s that “say what you want about me so I can prove you wrong” approach. It is surprisingly motivating. And I won’t allow those that feel this way (and I am sure I interact with many every day) to make me ignore the many wonderful people who DON’T feel that way and DO value diversity (and I interact with many people like this every day too). What remains sad is that whenever I realize that someone is the latter type of person, and is the type of person that makes decisions about every person based on their actual interaction with THAT person and not some whole group bulk judgement….when I meet a person like that….THAT is when I am surprised.  I wish it were the other way around.

To current the undergraduate Biology major….

-Who is upset by these Justices comments, but not surprised by them.

-Who is angry about having the college they matriculate at called “less-advanced” or “slower-track” (Scalia; Pg 67, line 14), but not unfamiliar with this opinion.

-Who is irate about whom these comments came from, but not discouraged by them, because they actually make a stronger case for the affirmative action that will ensure that he/she be accepted into the PhD program of that elite university after undergrad.

-Who finds the response of some people on this topic disappointing, but not unexpected.

  1. Continue to handle your business with the same focus and grace as usual.
  2. Continue trying doors until they open.
  3. Continue on to that PhD program in the elite university with the knowledge that the classes won’t be “too fast for you”. (Scalia; see pg 67, line 23)
  4. Continue to let your “life do the singing” as the song from my alma mater Hampton University proclaims.
  5. Continue doing what you are doing and pursuing your path “in spite of”, as you have been all along.

And regarding Justice Roberts statement about what you, as a minority student, could possibly contribute to a hard science class (Pg 55 , Line 17)?: Know that you will be called upon to lead the study group at times and to help your peers understand the material. And also be ok with the fact that at other times another may lead. Because when you are working on a PhD in the sciences EVERYONE struggles at some point and you survive collectively by drawing on each other’s unique talents and gifts. This is one thing I know for sure. And you can trust me on that, since I have actually taken a few physics classes in my time. But don’t just take my word for it, perhaps astrophysicist Jedidah Isler’s remarks can convince you

In the end I felt compelled to write this blog because I feel personally insulted and attacked by both justices statements during the oral arguments in the Fisher vs University of Texas supreme court case on December 9, 2015 (2015 people!).  But I was happy to read that Senator Harry Reid was also “deeply disturbed to hear a supreme court justice endorse racist ideas.” (   On the other hand, I am glad they said them “on the record” (audio here). This is not a criticism of either justice personally since they just said what many people we see everyday (in person or on social media) really feel and are defending loudly.  Those sharing these perceptions and perspective are entitled to their opinion and they certainly won’t stop my hustle, and young minority STEM students in training shouldn’t let it stop theirs. The thing that is most surprising about this is that the people who said it….out LOUD….are people who were hand-selected to pass judgment on others (some of whom may be minorities) in an objective, impartial and fair manner. A manner that should be based on the data and facts presented in front of them. That’s what personally has me worried the most………

… but for now, I’ll focus my energy on continuing to discover ways to destroy the cancers in our society that we can all universally agree upon are dangerous.

Note: the views and feelings expressed here are my own and not my employer

One Response to How justices of the supreme court accidentally just made the biggest argument SUPPORTING affirmative action for university admissions

  1. Barely Anonymous says:

    As a graduate student refugee from Rockefeller University who is now not at an “elite university”, perhaps Scalia’s comments apply to me and maybe he is right, black people as a whole are unsuitable for intellectually rigorous careers. However, I doubt it. The scientific enterprise itself is fundamentally built on doubt. So it is okay to doubt the biases against black people, both internalized and espoused by people like Scalia.

    The problem is that it is not just a problem of biases, but rather changing the composition of the people who have the power to make the decisions that work against these biases.

    Scalia is present in professors who will drop out of your committee if you exhibit a little too much confidence, or in peers or postdocs who will attempt condescending attitudes in their everyday interactions with you, or in advisors who may suggest that your insistence on publications is “careerist”. All of these people have a tangible impact on your career, both in the present and in the future, so their biases matter. However, if enough black people persist in these careers, there will eventually be large enough of a critical mass of black scientists to make these interactions irrelevant.

    You can easily get sidetracked into addressing these biases by spending too much time trying to prove your worthiness in classes and these everyday interactions and become sidetracked from doing what matters. It’s okay for black students to not be the most brilliant intellectuals in the room. They just need to be here, and curious, and ready to do the work. Specifically, black students need to keep a long-term perspective with the end goal in mind.

    Perhaps in a few years, the presence of African-Americans and other underrepresented minorities will become so much stronger that this article (reworded from Jennifer Raymond’s Nature op-ed “Sexist attitudes: Most of us are biased”) will not be so taboo that its existence today is almost laughable (almost like the idea of a black president just a decade ago):

    Racist attitudes: Most of us are biased
    Original article By Jennifer Raymond
    Let’s move beyond denial, own up to our prejudices against blacks and retrain our brains to overcome them, says [[Jennifer Raymond]].

    I have a bias against blacks in science. Please don’t hold this against me. I am a black scientist, mentor and advocate for blacks in science, and an associate dean in my school’s Office of Diversity, with a budding field biologist as a daughter. Yet my performance on the Implicit Association Test (, which measures unconscious associations between concepts, revealed that I have a tendency to associate whites with science and career, and blacks with sports and entertainment. I didn’t even need to wait for my score; I could feel that my responses were slower and that I made more mistakes when I had to group science words such as ‘astronomy’ with black faces.

    The results from hundreds of thousands of people indicate that I am not an outlier — 70% of men and women across 34 countries view science as more white than black1.

    The racial gap and how to close it.

    Racial bias is not just a problem in science. A host of studies shows that people tend to rate blacks as less competent than whites across many domains, from musical abilities to leadership2, and that many individuals hold biases about competency on the basis of other irrelevant attributes, such as gender, body weight, religion, sexual orientation and parental status.

    [[Such biases have important consequences in the workplace. One study showed that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are offered US$11,000 less salary than women with no children3. By contrast, the same study shows that parenthood confers an advantage to men in the workplace.]]

    A 2012 study by Jennifer Eberhardt (orig Jo Handelsman) of Stanford in Palo Alto, California, and her colleagues shook the scientific community by reporting that science faculty members have a pervasive bias against black scientists4. This prevents us from doing our job of promoting the best scientists, and society is paying a price in terms of the advancement of science.

    There is now sufficient evidence to move us beyond the denial phase of dealing with racial bias. Yet in talking to colleagues around the world, I find continued resistance to the idea that scientists, who take pride in being rational and objective, could be influenced by bias. One colleague was convinced that racial bias could affect the hiring of a lab manager, but he still doubted that it would affect a faculty-level hiring decision or the evaluation of a manuscript, even though the evidence suggests otherwise5. And I have seen junior colleagues shake their heads disapprovingly at the racial bias of older science faculty members, yet resist the idea that their generation might also have such bias.

    Unfortunately, young people are not immune to racial bias. Many studies have been conducted on college-age subjects, and racial bias has even been reported in preschool children6. I tried to protect my own children from racial bias by doing things such as changing the race of the characters in the children’s books I read to them to reverse racial stereotypes, and using the feminine pronoun wherever possible — “Look at the elephant; she is so strong.” Despite these efforts, my daughter had a bias against blacks in leadership positions by the age of three. One day in the park, she announced, “I am the captain; I’m a black captain,” suggesting that she knew she had to violate a racial stereotype to assume that leadership position. And although she has a black scientist dad who runs a lab full of black scientists, when my daughter took the implicit association test at age 8, it revealed a bias against blacks in science. My presence as a role model and other efforts at countering racial stereotypes were not enough to overcome the powerful cultural transmission of bias. Thus, it seems unlikely that unconscious racial bias will be eradicated any time soon, and the best we can do in the near term is to suppress its symptoms.

    If we are vigilant, we can reduce the influence of bias on our decisions. Unconscious biases are mental habits that tend to dominate our gut reactions, but we also have more-rational decision processes, which compete with our biases for control of behaviour. Just as one can overcome physical habits such as biting one’s fingernails or saying ‘umm’ when one speaks, one can suppress undesirable mental habits such as racial bias through deliberate, conscious strategies (see ‘Ways to conquer racial assumptions’). By enabling more blacks to succeed, despite the existence of unconscious bias, this will gradually eliminate the stereotype of the successful scientist as white, which is the root of racial bias.

    Box 1: Bias busters: Ways to conquer racial assumptions
    • Raise awareness of racial bias as a first step to overcoming it. Call for transparency in salaries, hiring, leadership and editorial decisions. Organize a discussion of implicit bias in science, and what can be done locally to address it. At Stanford University, we have a Racial Issues in Neuroscience discussion group that brainstorms ways to overcome challenges such as competition, response to failure, networking and speech and body language. We include whites in these discussions because they are also affected by racial stereotypes and are an essential part of the solution.
    • Use race-blind review5 or other processes to mitigate bias when reviewing applicants for a job, award, speaking engagement, grant or manuscript. Define measurable review criteria in advance to avoid a gut response, which is most vulnerable to bias. Be vigilant for rationalizations that could reflect an unconscious bias, such as “s/he’s great, but seems awfully young/is not a good fit/is working in such a competitive area”. Create an environment in which it is acceptable to question colleagues when bias might be influencing their behaviour. It is easier to detect bias in others than ourselves8, so we need to help each other without judgement. It is especially helpful if whites initiate conversations about racial bias so that blacks don’t bear the full responsibility.
    • Make a conscious effort to offer blacks mentoring and other support, including an equal salary to white peers, to overcome the documented tendency to offer blacks less4. Trumpet the achievements of black colleagues, because biases have the greatest influence when there is a dearth of specific information9. (Dearth of specific information exists on number of black scientists in neuroscience.)
    • Blacks should overcome their own racial bias because it could make them less likely to compete for prestigious jobs or awards10. Be proactive in seeking mentorship, and negotiate for salary and other resources. Offer your talent to employers who have programmes to help level the playing field for blacks. Join or start a blacks-in-science group, especially within your own scientific subspeciality, because such groups can provide speaking invitations, tenure letters, advice about the key issues and players in the field, and reviews of papers and grants. For about 15 years, blacks in my subspeciality have got together at our national neuroscience meeting for an annual event that we irreverently call the Nubians of the Vestibular/Oculomotor System Dinner.
    • Fund pilot projects to test innovative interventions to mitigate the effects of bias, and create a central repository for sharing strategies. These programmes will more than pay for themselves if they help to retain the best talent. Considerable resources are being invested in training each young scientist — if we want to be good stewards of that investment, we need to provide everyone, whites and blacks, with a just shot at success. Institutions should provide incentives, such as salary support or alleviation of other duties, to individuals who spearhead efforts to address implicit bias.

    However, if left unrecognized and unchecked, bias can commandeer both our behaviour and our rational thought processes. Our brains are skilful at creating seemingly rational justifications for our behaviour, even when it is driven by bias. People who had to rate two ‘applicants’ for police chief — one who had more education and the other who had more experience — always chose the white person over the black person, but justified their choice as arising from the value they placed on either education or experience, whichever factor was assigned to the man7.

    Denial that bias exists gives it more power. I am not proud of my unconscious bias against blacks in science. However, I know that I must first recognize my own bias to overcome it with deliberate practices that suppress its effects. I urge you to join me.

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