The blunt racism of Antonin Scalia’s statement today recommending that minority students attend “lesser” schools so that they do not feel that they are being “pushed too hard,” is cloaked in false concern. His is not only a deeply racist worldview, demarcating human potential on the basis of some arbitrarily ascribed biological identity, but a disingenuous one. Clearly Justice Scalia does not have any authentic concern regarding the well being of minority students or he would not seek to limit their opportunities. But I want to talk for a minute about Justice John Roberts’ contribution to today’s Supreme Court discussion of affirmative action measures, which has gotten less attention from the press and on social media.
Robert’s words might appear to constitute a milder, less biological rejection of identity-focused educational reforms. They do not. In a seemingly trivial aside, Roberts dismissed a common trope in higher education diversity programming: the idea that diversity of student background will intellectually enrich all students’ classroom experiences. Roberts said that he did not see what “unique perspective” a minority student could bring to physics class. In that claim I think we actually see one of the more insidious defenses of racism circulating in our culture: Roberts would have us believe that scientific knowledge is not–cannot possibly be–raced.
To be clear: uncritical “diversity” efforts that seek to increase the presence of non-majority persons in STEM settings can themselves readily reproduce essentialisms. Critics from the left, especially those working with the incisive tools of intersectionality, question casual associations of say, one’s Hispanic heritage, Lesbian identity, or immigrant experiences with particular or unique outlooks on the world. They make clear that simple or predictive associations of that kind are not merely means of reproducing differences of value to those in authority, but are also likely to reinstate racist, sexist, or homophobic conditions in the long run. This isn’t just true of schooling: Consider corporate diversity efforts that celebrate the “unique” innovations of persons of different backgrounds; these are often deeply problematic, enrobing globalizing and marketing priorities in inclusive rhetoric.
But Roberts isn’t against mixing people of different perceived backgrounds where they are not currently mixing, as in physics. Nor is he for it. He is quite simply and conveniently denying that physics is a place where background functions; there’s no problem with the current demographic make-up of science because it’s not a meaningful category of concern. Real, good science does not have demographics.
This claim is possible not just because our culture is unaccustomed to seeing physics and other sciences as raced. It is because Roberts, like many of us of majority background, has great difficulty seeing any places dominated by white persons as places where race is functioning.
Mind you: Science is particularly good at being white. By that I mean that science disciplines, like technology, engineering and mathematics fields, customarily work to evacuate any indication that social or political values shape their content or practices. Sure, ethics count and malfeasance happens, we commonly hear, but if you get down to the calculations or measurements or mixing of chemicals at the lab bench, that’s simply not activity where one’s life experience; one’s socio-economic status; or the privileges or penalties of gender, class or race could possibly play any part. Or so goes the usual conversation about identity in STEM. And in maintaining that view, the pervasive role of white privilege in shaping what counts as a reasonable question, answer, calculation, measurement, instrument, learning style, or idea in science (yes, even in physics) is routinely disguised as rigor. Equity projects such as minority set asides and affirmative action counter that view by bringing explicit, responsible attention to the role played by identity in the lab or classroom or board room.
To shut down such attention is to naturalize the disproportionate representation of white persons in many areas of American learning and work; to make the under-representation of minority persons seem a natural by-product of intellectual or character differentials. In short: A neatly eugenic system.
I have written about these circumstances in regard to engineering and they are also true of physics, and any places of intellectual labor where whiteness goes unremarked. I am not expecting a Supreme Court justice to have studied the history of science, or science studies, or intersectional theory. But I am expecting the basic goal of maintaining a reflective and just society, a goal that shapes much work in those academic inquiries and many other humanistic projects in our culture, both in and beyond the academy, to drive the thinking of the country’s highest court.
A crucial step in any such maintenance is the acknowledgement that ascriptions of whiteness bring opportunity, privilege, and safety even in our society’s most ostensibly intellectual, most knowledge-intensive, undertakings: in science, medicine, banking, law. Ironically, Justices Scalia and Roberts have today given us some very powerful evidence on that very point.