Scalia exposes more than just his racism

There is no getting around the fact of Justice Antonin Scalia’s racism, made patent this week by his comment in an affirmative action case that African American students would perform better at “slower-track” schools.

One useful response making its way into the media pointed out that Scalia was wrong. University of Michigan law professor Richard Lempert, for example, noted that, “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.”

There are some intuitive reasons why this makes sense. More selective schools have more resources: more full-time faculty, more teaching assistants, smaller classes, better libraries and laboratories. In more nebulous, but still very noticeable ways, better resources are also supportive of a campus culture of learning and achievement. As a university professor, it doesn’t surprise me that students do better at better institutions.

The debate over affirmative action is, in large part, about the legacies of racialized slavery, segregation, and hierarchy in the United States. But is also a debate about access to scarce resources: admission slots in selective schools. I agree with those who argue that diversity – of many kinds – is broadly beneficial for institutions. But in allowing ourselves to focus only on the question of racial diversity we lose sight of an equally important question: why are we satisfied with a world in which the tremendous benefits of a high-quality education are bestowed only on those fortunate enough to attend a “selective” school?

We could, of course, reduce the scarcity of high-quality education by expanding and improving our public universities. Instead of arguing only about what the elite will look like, shouldn’t we question the very idea of such a highly stratified elite?

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