Home/Rod Dreher/Freaking Out Over Scalia

Freaking Out Over Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia (Shawn/Flickr)

Drama at the Supreme Court yesterday, as the justices heard oral arguments in an affirmative action case:

The University of Texas has determined that if it excluded race as a factor, that remaining 25 percent would be almost entirely white. During the oral arguments, former US Solicitor General Greg Garre, who is representing the university, was explaining this to the justices. At that point, Scalia jumped in, questioning whether increasing the number of African Americans at the flagship university in Austin was in the black students’ best interests. He said:

There are those 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. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.

He went on to say, “I’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [blacks]. Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

Well, that caused a freakout on the left, where a number of folks overinterpreted this to mean that Scalia was saying that all blacks belong at “slower” schools (as distinct from those blacks who get into UT-Austin despite disqualifyingly low grades, because of affirmative action). The freakout seemed also based on the presumption that there is no basis for what Scalia said.

In fact, there is. In the Washington Post today, Yanan Wang explains that there is research indicating that admitting black students to academic programs for which they lack adequate preparation hurts them. There is research data to dispute this, but the point is, Scalia didn’t make this up.

Back in 2003, the black linguist John McWhorter wrote a piece meditating on his own “diversity” experience at his undergraduate school, but saying that what his college meant by diversity, and what diversity has generally come to mean at universities (more minority faces, regardless of qualification), are not the same thing. McWhorter wrote:

The dismal failure of the “diversity” experiment of the last two decades offers an important lesson for a post-affirmative-action admissions policy. Even as we seek diversity in the worthy, Simon’s Rock sense, we must recognize that students need to be able to excel at college-level studies. Nobody wins, after all, when a young man or woman of whatever color, unprepared for the academic rigors of a top university, flunks out, or a school dumbs down its curriculum to improve graduation rates. The problem, then, is to find some way to measure a student’s potential that still leaves administrators enough leeway to ensure that campus life benefits from a rich variety of excellences and life experiences.

As it turns out, we have—and use—the measure: the Scholastic Aptitude Test. James Conant invented the SAT as a meritocratic tool to smoke out talented individuals from the wide range of life circumstances in American society, not just the WASP elite who made up the vast majority of Ivy League student bodies in the pre-SAT era. Nowadays, a creeping fashion dismisses the SAT as culturally biased, claiming that it assesses only a narrow range of ability and is irrelevant to predicting students’ future performance. But while it is true that the SAT is far from perfect—if it were, students wouldn’t be able to boost their scores by taking SAT preparatory classes—the exam really does tend to forecast students’ future success, as even William Bowen and Derek Bok admit in their valentine to racial preferences, The Shape of the River. In their sample of three classes from 1951 to 1989 at 28 selective universities, Bowen and Bok show that SAT scores correlated neatly with students’ eventual class ranks.

For gauging student potential in the humanities, the verbal SAT, or SATV, seems particularly useful. Rutgers University English professor William Dowling compared the grades of kids in one of his classes over the years with how they did on the verbal test. “What I found,” Dowling notes, “was that the SATV scores had an extraordinarily high correlation with final grades, and that neither, in the many cases where I had come to know my students’ personal backgrounds, seemed to correlate very well with socio-economic status.” The reason, Dowling thinks, is painfully obvious: having a strong command of English vocabulary, usually gained through a lifelong habit of reading, is hardly irrelevant to how one engages advanced reading material. As Dowling argues, a student of any socioeconomic background who can’t answer correctly a relatively hard SAT question like this one—“The traditional process of producing an oil painting requires so many steps that it seems______to artists who prefer to work quickly: (A) provocative (B) consummate (C)interminable (D) facile (E) prolific”—will be fated to frustration at a selective university, at least in the humanities.

My own experience reinforces Dowling’s. I’ve taught students who, though intelligent, possessed limited reading vocabularies and struggled with the verbal portion of the SAT. I have never known a single one of these students to reach the top ranks in one of my classes. “I think I understand what Locke is saying,” one student told me in frustration while preparing for a big exam. But Locke isn’t Heidegger—his prose, while sophisticated, is clear as crystal. This student confessed that he was “no reader” and possessed only a “tiny vocabulary.” Without the vocabulary, he was at sea. Conversely, my textaholic students are usually the stars, gifted at internalizing material and interpreting it in fresh ways—and this is especially true of students immersed in high literature.

A post-preferences admissions policy, then, must accept that below a certain cut-off point in SAT scores, a student runs a serious risk of failing to graduate. As Thomas Sowell, among others, has shown, placing minorities in schools that expect a performance level beyond what they have been prepared to meet leads to disproportionate dropout rates—41 percent of the black students in Berkeley’s class of 1988, to take one typical example, did not complete their education, compared with 16 percent of whites. Many of these students may have flourished at slightly less competitive schools. Moreover, when minority students attend schools beyond their level, note Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber inIncreasing Faculty Diversity, poor grades often deter them from pursuing graduate degrees, contributing to the dearth of black Ph.D.s. Black and minority students overwhelmed on a too-demanding campus can succumb, too, to the bluster of seeing themselves as “survivors” in a racist country—becoming part of an embittered minority rather than proud members of a national elite. To prevent this kind of damage, the SAT can supply us with the rough parameters within which our admissions search for different kinds of merit—diversity, rightly understood—will proceed. All this makes the recent efforts by the affirmative-action claque to get rid of the SAT misguided in the extreme.

It makes sense to ask, as Scalia did, whether or not it serves the interests of minority students to admit them to a university for which they are not academically prepared. The answer might be “yes,” but that would require a good explanation. One doesn’t need to embrace a “Bell Curve” explanation for the poor preparation of black students for top-level college work. It could well be that a disproportionate number of black students come from bad public schools, or from impoverished families and cultural backgrounds where reading and academics were not given priority. These things are not the fault of the students, necessarily, but you cannot make up for them by affirmative-action fiat.

When I read the Scalia remarks and the controversy, I thought about my own humiliating experience with math. In junior high and high school, I was a straight-A student. I had to work harder in math, and didn’t really like it, but my grades were almost always As, or high Bs. In the fall of 1983, I entered the junior class at a public boarding school for gifted kids from all over Louisiana. Trigonometry hit me like a 2×4 upside the head. I couldn’t keep up. I looked around me and saw that other students from bigger schools had no problem following the accelerated pace at which our teacher went. I had been one of the top students in my old high school in rural Louisiana, but here, competing against some of the best students in the state, I was nothing.

I handled it badly. I shut down emotionally, and pretended that what was happening to me wasn’t really happening. In truth, I was not a bad math student, just one on the high side of average, which made me top of the class in my rural high school, where our math teacher, Mr. McKey, was terrific. Put in a classroom under conditions for which I was not qualified, I choked — and quit going to class, because facing my own severe limitations made me despise myself. I failed that class. I had never failed anything before, nor come close to it. I blame myself for not responding to that adversity by working harder, but boy, was it ever a psychological blow.

I never did quite recover from that. Math had been interesting to me before, but far from a passion. After that, math terrified me. It was the thing that made me feel like a failure, because I had failed at it. True, I demonstrated weakness of character by coming up against great adversity and collapsing, but the fact is, I was not remotely prepared to work at that school’s level in math, and there was no way to hide my weakness. Reading about the Scalia controversy made me reflect on all this, and on how damaging my experience in that math class was. Again, this is not the fault of the teacher or the school, and maybe not even entirely my fault either; after all, I was at the top of my class in math at my ordinary high school, and had no way of knowing my limitations, and my inability to exceed them. I’m almost 49 years old, and I still have anxiety dreams about that class, because the experience of failure was so traumatic that it made me radically doubt my own worth.

My own reasoning, and my own personal experience of academic failure, tells me that it is not good to put students in a position where they are set up to fail, and not just students. I’ve seen this happen with diversity hires in the workplace, in which everyone else in the office had to pretend that what was happening was not, in fact, happening — until the truth could no longer be denied, because work was not getting done. The point is not “no minorities should be hired or admitted because minorities can’t do the work,” but rather “people who aren’t qualified by training and background to do the work should not be hired or admitted because they are minorities.”

Maybe I’m wrong — but why can’t we at least talk about it? The fact that the audience in the Supreme Court chamber audibly gasped when Scalia made his comment indicates how taboo this commonsense point is for discussion among American elites. Steve Sailer is correct here:

I’m not sure if Scalia’s question is totally true, but, obviously, it’s essential to discuss it to have an intelligent debate on affirmative action. And that’s precisely why it was so shocking that Scalia dared bring it up. Respectability in modern America is proportional to the number of plausible and important ideas you would never dream of mentioning, even if you are a Supreme Court justice or a Presidential candidate.

This kind of thing, says Victor Davis Hanson, partly explains the enduring popularity of Donald Trump:

The public no longer respects U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS, the VA, or the GSA. Even the once-hallowed Secret Service has become a near laughingstock of incompetency, corruption, and politicization. Is the purpose of NASA really Muslim outreach, as NASA chief Charles Bolden suggested in 2010?

The world that we are told about by our government bears no resemblance to what we see and hear every day.


In short, millions of citizens think the nation is headed for a financial reckoning. They feel threatened by radical Islamic terrorism. They sense that cultural and social stability has disappeared. And they know that expression of these worries can be a thought crime — hounded down by politicians, media, universities, and cultural institutions that do not enjoy broad public support and are not subject to the direct consequences of their own ideologies.

Amid these crises and the present absence of responsible leadership, if there were not a demagogic Donald Trump ranting and raving on the scene, the country would probably have to invent something like him.

Whole thing here. Hanson is right.

I do not like Donald Trump. I think that he is an empty-suited demagogue. The one thing I will say for him, though, is that I admire his willingness to say what he thinks, and I enjoy the fact that the GOP establishment is powerless before him. As Ross Douthat writes today, after the failures of the Bush presidency, the Republicans have little authority. They have created the situation that now vexes them. And so have liberal elites, in part by making legitimate questions about public controversies taboo to discuss. People don’t stop talking about those things privately, or thinking those things, just because the managerial class has made it impossible to speak those concerns in the public square. Trump says them crudely, because he does not give a rat’s rear end for respectability, and nobody can fire him for political incorrectness.

David French writes about the role Trump plays in shaking up the boundaries of national discourse:

While many of Trump’s actual proposals are misguided, nonsensical, or untenable, by smashing the [Overton] window [Note: the range of ideas it is permissible to talk about in public — RD], he’s begun the process of freeing the American people from the artificial and destructive constraints of Left-defined discourse. Serious and substantive politicians like Ted Cruz will get a more respectful hearing, and PC shibboleths about allegedly boundless virtues of Islam and immigration will be treated with the skepticism they deserve.

To be clear, this change is occurring both for good and for ill. The shattering of the window reflects the shattering of the American consensus, and the result will likely be deeper polarization, and even less civility, with further strains on the ties that bind our nation together. At the same time, however, the Left’s very success at defining the terms of discourse meant that the price of civility and unity was all too often an acceptance of liberal norms and manners. It meant swallowing liberal pieties and confining your discourse to Left-approved terms. In other words, it often meant surrender.

French says that this does not justify saying anything you want to just because it makes lefties mad, which seems to be the Trump strategy most of the time. Still, the “OMG Scalia is a racist!” freakout today serves as a great example of why Trump thrives, and why it’s mostly, but not entirely, a bad thing that he does.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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