Setting the Record Straight: Students of Color Belong in Top Schools
A Statement from the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice
Black people don’t belong in top schools – that’s what I heard from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during oral argument in the high-profile Fisher v. University of Texas case. As a gay Latino who arrived in this country when I was nine years old and who was raised by a single mother in a low-income immigrant community, I’ve heard similar disparaging comments throughout my academic and professional life – never mind that I graduated at the top of my class from high school, college and law school.
As a civil rights attorney, I know that Justice Scalia is wrong, and I helped to prove it in a Supreme Court brief filed by my organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, on behalf of leading scholars who have, through rigorous empirical studies, debunked the so-called “mismatch theory.” This is the idea, voiced by Justice Scalia, that affirmative action is harmful to students of color because they don’t belong in top schools. This idea is not just legally and scientifically wrong, it’s also misguided and dangerous.
Justice Scalia essentially said that Black students – and by extension other people of color – are inherently less qualified and capable than Whites. People who look like me are, somehow, less able to withstand rigorous academic pressure. Conversely, Justice Scalia implies that White students are inherently more able, more capable, and more deserving. This racial dichotomy and hierarchy – rooted in purported inherent differences between races – helped legitimize slavery and segregation. Under this view of race, it shouldn’t even be separate but equal – it should be separate and unequal. These preconceptions and stereotypes are precisely what civil rights attorneys have been fighting even before Brown v. Board of Education. It’s what my organization fought for when we desegregated Boston’s public schools, and it’s what we continue to fight for today.
In the aftermath of police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, students of all races in colleges across the country have been calling for greater diversity and inclusion. The natural extension of Justice Scalia’s comments on race is that the experiences of students of color on campus don’t matter and that their alienation and marginalization on campus is justified. After all, if students of color don’t belong on campus, then why should they be made to feel welcome?
The notions underlying the so-called “mismatch theory” are paternalistic. They are racism masked as benevolence. Proponents of such theories pretend to be looking out for the best interests of students of color. In reality, they are taking away our choice and our capacity to make our own decisions.
A logical extension of Justice Scalia’s argument is that professionals of color – the presumed beneficiaries of affirmative action – are unqualified. In arguing that students of color don’t belong in top schools, Justice Scalia suggests that neither Justice Clarence Thomas nor Justice Sonia Sotomayor should have attended Yale Law School, and that they should not be his peers. But Justice Scalia – and opponents of diversity – don’t call into question the qualifications of the children of wealthy alumni who are admitted under legacy admissions programs. There is no national movement to send them to “slower” schools. This creates a strong impression that certain colleges – and the opportunities they afford – should be exclusively reserved for Whites.
I believe strongly and unequivocally that colleges and universities must retain the ability to consider race as one of many factors in creating a diverse student body. And I know that, when students from different walks of life learn with and from each other, they are better prepared for success in our increasingly diverse and interconnected world. The benefits that flow from diversity don’t change based on the caliber of the school. We should be promoting diversity, not quashing it.
So let’s set the record straight, people of color belong in all schools, including top colleges, and we belong on the Supreme Court, in corporate boardrooms, and wherever else opportunity exists. For all of us, the civil rights struggle continues.
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Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, the organization that desegregated Boston’s public schools.