Analyzing Justice Antonin Scalia's Claim That Black Students Perform Better At "Slower-Track" Schools

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Justice Antonin Scalia

[The Morning Memo]


Some have blasted Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for making seemingly racist and insensitive claims about Black students during oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas, where a White student Abigail N. Fisher has sued claiming she was denied admission in 2008 because Black students were given racial preference.

Justice Scalia asked whether it would be better for Black students to go to “a slower-track school where they do well” instead of selective schools like the University of Texas.

It would be the uninitiated (ignorant) who would entertain such unreflective response to Justice Scalia's comments. Speaking as a Jamaican (Caribbean American) educator, there is merit in what the Justice claimed, and I have cited studies making similar claims. 

On the other hand, similar to how some racists get away with racism by framing it as “innocent jokes,” and some scholars use their positions to advance racist ideologies, vis a vis the Bell Curve, there is a need to critically examine what Justice Scalia is saying and what he means.

My experience with one of my sons, Phillip, provides a framework for exploring the Justice’s argument from a contrary perspective, yet having an open mind regarding the structural and social elements that are the root causes making his claim true. 

In other words, Black children who are brought up without the early educational foundation (from the womb), the family support, the parental in-school involvement, and quality and caring educators in good schools  would, indeed, find it difficult to succeed in a competitive elementary through secondary schools, which translate to their eventual failure in competitive colleges. 

Surely an "A" is not the same across all schools; one from a regular high school in South Bronx may not be valued as an “A” in a Riverdale high school in Bronx.  

So here is my own experience with my son Phillip.  Use it to frame your response. 

Approximately 23 years ago when Phillip was to graduate from elementary school, I asked his White guidance counselor why he did not refer Phillip to the gifted-and-talented (G & T) middle school. He claimed it was best if he attended a lower-performing school and came out on top. 

He revealed it would be too damaging to his psyche if he attended the gifted-and-talented school and performed poorly. On the other hand, supposedly, it would be less damaging to my son's psyche if he flew as high as an eagle amongst turkeys.

However, when Phillip was in the 3rd grade, an African American teacher at PS 76 in the Bronx, Ms. Cash, informed my wife and I that Phillip should be tested for the G & T program.  I had him take the test in third grade and I was informed he was on a waiting list. I had him retake it from 4th through 5th grades and each time I was told he was on a waiting list.

Eventually, I ran for school board member in District 11 in the Bronx, where I developed some political connections.  Even though I did not win a seat, my votes went to Rodney Saunders who became school board president. A week later he called and asked about my son.  I informed him he was placed in the worst middle school in the District.  He stated he would speak to the school superintendent, Joseph Kovally.  A day later Phillip was placed in the G & T school. He spent a year there and passed for Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City's elite high schools, where he joined the Army Reserve, and eventually the ROTC in college.

Phillip, now 35, earned Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering and Business administration; he speaks Japanese, was a 2013 White House Champion of Change honoree for his green technology company, and he is now a Major (17 year service) in the Army reserve.

What would have happened to Phillip if his father and mother had not been actively involved during his education process?

There were many Black children in Phillip’s elementary school who scored in the 90-99 percentile in math and English as he did.  As a parent leader, I fought to establish honors program in their school and to get some of them in the gifted programs. 

In the 6th grade Phillip cried as he saw me being carted away in handcuffs. The principal, a Black man, called the police to have me arrested, even though I was the parent association leader.  His claim was that the teachers were scared of me. 

So, it is not strictly a matter of Black and White; it is the structure. Notwithstanding, we must understanding the history of the Black experience with schooling in America and how the Supreme Court contributed to its retardation (Plessey v Ferguson) and its eventual elevation (Brown v. Bd of Education)


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