US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's remarks suggesting black students might do better at less rigorous universities drew rapid rebukes from civil rights leaders, Democrats in Congress, and the White House.
"The idea that African-American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior from other students is despicable," Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said on the Senate floor. "It's a throwback ... to a time that America left behind a half a century ago."
However, Justice Scalia is not the first member of the nation's high court to suggest that minority students may be ill-served by affirmative action admissions policies: Justice Clarence Thomas, the only black member of the Supreme Court, made a similar comments in 2003, when he suggested that some minority students were not prepared for the rigorous coursework at the University of Michigan.
Both comments came in the context of cases relating to the application of affirmative action in college admissions. In the 2003 case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan ban on affirmative action in college admissions. The current case before the high court challenges The University of Texas's right to consider race, along with other factors, in choosing applicants for a quarter of its freshmen.
For decades, universities have used affirmative action to promote diversity in student bodies and to ensure that minority students receive the same opportunities that white students receive. The problem with that, Scalia and Justice Thomas say, is that students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, as many minority students do, may be admitted into schools with academic expectations that they are not prepared for.
Scalia noted that one of the briefs he possessed indicated most of American black scientists do not 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," Scalia said. "I'm just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer.”
Gregory Garre, the university's lawyer, disagreed. He told Scalia that minority students admitted through affirmative action eventually did better than students admitted from top academic institutions.
"I just think he's a pull-no-punches kind of guy," said former Scalia clerk and federal judge Paul Cassell in regards to Scalia. "Political correctness can obscure correct answers in legal cases and block discussion of the hard questions.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Scalia’s comments contrasted with President Obama’s. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who attended the arguments, said he didn't know "if I was in the courtroom at the United States Supreme Court or at a Donald Trump rally."
This report includes material from The Associated Press.