Skip to main content

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 

Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)

Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts like this. 

So isn't this an argument in favor of colorblindness? Since race isn't real, shouldn't we ignore it? It might seem counterintuitive, but the answer is a resounding no. We should not ignore race. We should acknowledge it and it should be made explicit in every aspect of the SCOTUS hearing on affirmative action, as well in our admissions and hiring procedures. Why? Because even though race isn't a biological reality, it is most certainly a societal reality. 


Remember, modern-day liberal racism rests on "colorblindness," which in turn rests on the No Racism Axiom, which posits that systemic racism is not a thing. The logical next step from this (false) axiomatic starting point is that everyone has an equal set of opportunities and choices that lead to an equal set of corresponding outcomes. Roberts is implicitly making this specious assumption in framing his question. Since all students have an equal opportunity, then the lack of "minorities" (read: Black, Latin@ and Indigenous students) in a physics classroom is a reflection of either mathematical incompetence, bad choices, or both. 

The problem is that extending Roberts' reasoning one step further reveals that this supposed disparity in ability and propensity for bad choices falls along race lines. White (straight, cisgender male) students are, on average, really good at physics and make good choices to get into physics classes at the best universities. Nonwhite students perform poorly at math-oriented tasks and make poor choices along their educational trajectories. 

This should lead to the question: but why? Why does race matter? Unfortunately, this is where the logical process falters, and things get "complicated" in the minds of many white people. Instead, we're left with an unanswered question from one of the most powerful figures in our country that reifies race, once again. This is what Karen Fields and Barbara Fields refer to as "Racecraft." Barbara Fields gives an excellent analogy of how questions like Judge Roberts' can make fictional concepts real, even among knowledgeable people (cf also her shorter essay). "How does a witch make someone sick using the evil eye?" The question implicitly acknowledges the reality of witches and witchcraft. Racecraft, y'all!

The intrinsic nature of race and its relationship to physics acumen, and the logical conclusion that the only reason we'd want more "minorities" in a physics classroom is for diversity-based aesthetics is embedded in Roberts' question. It is further reinforced by the defense attorney who weakly responded by citing a study that shows that diversity is good. Apparently the notion that Black students might (gasp!) be really good at physics if given a chance is never given voice the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court. The Justice might as well have asked how unicorns fly and the attorney responded with an explanation of the Bernoulli effect. 

However, the extrinsic reasons for the racial disparities in the physics classroom, and elsewhere, are not only knowable, they are well studied and published in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, books and lectures in the social sciences, psychology and economics. All of these materials are readily available via the a straight-forward Google search, coffee mug and notebook at the ready. The problem for colorblind people is that the answers point back to this thing called "systemic racism," giving lie to the No-Racism Axiom. 

For example, the reasons for racial disparities, generally, are nicely summarized in the writing of Gunnar Myrdal, a white Nobel laureate economist, who wrote as far back as 1944 (quoted in Haney Lopez 2013):
Practically all the economic, social, and political power is held by whites...It is thus the white majority group that naturally determines the Negro's 'place.' All our attempts to reach scientific explanations of why the Negroes are what they are and why they live as they do have regularly led to determinations on the white side of the race line.
Even more damning, in the report commissioned by President Johnson in 1967, the Kerner Commission concludes, "Segregation and poverty have created in the [Black community] a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans...White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." 

But isn't this in the past? one might ask. Lemme reach into my pocket and pull out a big Nope from just a couple years ago. A report out of Brandies University (Shapiro, Meschede & Osoro 2013) summarizes the root causes of the present-day 18-to-1 wealth gap between white and Black US-Americans, keeping in mind that wealth is awfully handy in getting a higher education:
Homes are the largest investment that most American families make and by far the biggest item in their wealth portfolio...Yet, for many years, redlining, discriminatory mortgage-lending practices, lack of access to credit, and lower incomes have blocked the homeownership path for African Americans while creating and reinforcing communities segregated by race.
This history of race-based real estate plunder is described in detail here. The state of extreme segregation in public schools is described here. The disparities in educational opportunities in predominantly non-white public schools are described here. The ability of negative racial stereotypes to impact academic performance is laid out in over 300 peer-reviewed journal articles here

Having Black/Brown students in a physics classroom isn't about diversity. It's about basic justice. It's about letting a Black/Brown kid with the audacity and courage to step into any white-dominated academic field to do so, be supported, and ultimately succeed, just like any white student. After all, Ms. Fischer isn't arguing that she'd add diversity to the University of Texas. She feels it was unjust that she wasn't admitted, even if her academic performance proves otherwise despite her white advantage. 

The willful ignorance of Judges Roberts and Scalia, and especially for the white defending attorney who had no meaningful answer to Roberts' racist question, is unsurprising, in my view, yet nonetheless disgusting and sad. I just sit here watching how their comments, the extrajudicial killings of Black women and men, the racist comments of carnival barkers masquerading as presidential candidates, the real yet ignored reasons behind the student protests, and white faculty crying about "freedom of speech" are all parts of the same machinery of racial injustice. 

I don't know what else to say about US-America's "epistemology of ignorance," as Charles Mills aptly names it. I guess it's a good time to let James Baldwin have the last word:
The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans—white Americans—would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. 
No, wait. Check that, and check my male privilege. Let's give Kwanzaa Bennett the last word:
Truly, it’s no surprise that Fisher’s proposed solution is a “colorblind” entry process. Colorblindness has always been a very effective way for white people to pretend to be progressive and “non-racist” while conveniently ignoring the voices and unique challenges of people of color—black people especially...Ms. Fisher, if you ever do feel like having a grown-up conversation about racial discrimination and unfair advantage in America, we’ll be happy to offer you a seat at our table, just as soon as you turn in your five-page essay on the historical disadvantages white people have had in the educational system built on the backs of those who have been forced to attend "separate but equal" schools since their conception. We’ll wait. 




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 
Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reveren…