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‘We are excelling in every field’: Black students rebuff Justice Scalia

Supreme Court justice’s remarks about African-Americans and higher education cause pain and anger on campus

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that could have a far-reaching effect on the future of affirmative action in the United States. Abigail Fisher, who is white, claimed she was denied a spot at the University of Texas’ Austin campus because the system used by the school to admit freshmen excluded her on the basis of race.

During Wednesday’s session, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “There are some who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well … I’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [black students]. Maybe it ought to have fewer.”

The reaction to Scalia’s remarks was swift and severe.

On social media, many African-Americans responded to Scalia’s comments using the hashtag #StayMadAbby — referring to the plaintiff — voicing their disagreement with Fisher, graduation photos or references to elite colleges they attended.

Meanwhile, at the Austin campus, many African-American students said that Scalia’s comments have dominated their conversations.

David McDonald, 22, is a member of the Black Student Alliance at the University of Texas and was one of three UT students in the courtroom when Scalia made his comments.

“I don’t know if anyone else reacted, because I was so caught up in my own reaction,” he said. “It just really resonated with me how disconnected he was from the true black students who matriculate through UT … We are excelling in every field.”

LaShawn Washington, a senior political science major, heard about Scalia’s comments from her mother after calling to say she got an A in her neuroscience class. “It was kind of a juxtaposition to my actual reality at the time,” said Washington.

She said she felt crushed. “I’m being told by someone who is not a minority that blacks don’t succeed in these types of atmospheres and they should go to quote-unquote slower-track schools,” she said. “I’m still having to justify why I’m qualified to be in the same space as a white man.”

She was originally rejected when she applied to the University of Texas in high school. She went to community college for a semester and then took two years off to take care of her disabled mother. Washington enrolled in community college and then reapplied to the University of Texas, was admitted on scholarship and started in the fall of 2014. Washington said that she has a 3.89 grade point average. “I’m a first-generation college student,” she said. “Someone who struggled but … came to UT and still excelled.”

"There are lots of other races and ethnicities that are on campus, but it’s predominately white," said Melissa Herman, an American studies major who graduated from UT in May of 2014. According to an accountability report published by Texas Higher Education Data, a group created by the Texas Legislature, the autumn enrollment of 2014 was 46.9 percent white, 19.9 percent Hispanic, 17.3 percent Asian and 4.4 percent African-American.

By comparison, the autumn enrollment of 2000 was 62.7 percent white, 11.8 percent Hispanic, 12.5 percent Asian and 3.2 percent African-American. 

Herman, an African-American, said she wouldn’t trade her UT experience for anything. “But at the end of the day, it’s still heavily white. It’s still mired in a history of racism,” she added. “[Fisher’s] whole case just kind of undermines everything that the university has done to make it a more inclusive and diverse place.” 

The University of Texas did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think that a lot of times, we view thoughts like these or people’s thoughts in this area as individual racism, but I think it kind of shows a bigger picture about how institutional racism is perpetuated,” said Chelsea Jones, 22, an African-American who graduated from UT last week. “It’s these things by individuals in power that influence polices and influence important court cases that decide the fates of students of color in the future.”

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