Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued Wednesday that there are “those who contend it does not benefit African-Americans” to go upper-tier colleges where “they do not do well.” They should go to a “less-advanced school,” he said, on a “slower track where they do well.”
Scalia may be speaking from personal experience.
In his youth, he failed to get into his first choice high school and then was rejected by Princeton University, later claiming he was passed over because he was “an Italian boy from Queens, not the Princeton type.”
According to Joan Biskupic, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, a young Scalia failed a test to get into his first choice school, Regis High School in New York City, although he acknowledges he was not sick for the exam. Scalia’s father reassured him that his failure to get into Regis could be good for him, as another school might be better for students that “were not all ‘brains.’” The young Scalia ended up graduating first in his class from Xavier High School, an independent Jesuit school in New York City.
Biskupic describes Scalia’s Regis rejection in American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:
Antonin earned high grades in elementary school, yet he stumbled at the end of eighth grade. He wanted to go to the Jesuit-run Regis High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but he failed the entrance exam. A strong college prep school, Regis offered full scholarships to all of its qualifying students. In a conversation nearly sixty years later, Scalia could not recall being sick or otherwise experiencing some condition that would have caused him to fail…
He did not recall a harsh reaction from his father about a bad score. In fact, his father uncharacteristically told him it might end up for the better to be at a place that had students with a range of abilities and were not all “brains.”
Four years later, Scalia once again faced a snub from his first-choice school. The future justice won an ROTC scholarship with the Navy and “he wanted to use it on Princeton,” Biskupic writes in American Original. Scalia blamed his Italian heritage for the rejection:
But after completing the application and interview process, he was rejected. Even into the 1950s, and more so than Harvard and Yale, Princeton had the atmosphere of a private club.
“I was an Italian boy from Queens, not quite the Princeton type,” Scalia said decades later. The Princeton episode would not be the last time he felt resentment—ethnic or otherwise—when events turned against him.
Ivy League schools were considerably easier to get into when Scalia applied than today’s 6.99 percent Princeton admission rate. According to Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and an Ivy League admissions scholar, 55 percent of those who applied to Princeton from private schools were accepted in 1953, the year Scalia graduated.
Of all students who applied to Princeton, 39 percent were accepted in 1953. At the University of Texas-Austin, the school named in the case the justices are now arguing, 39 percent were accepted in 2015.
“The preponderance of the academic opinion is that Scalia is wrong on this issue,” Karabel, the author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission, and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, told The Daily Beast.
“My personal thoughts are that at the undergraduate level, the probability that a minority student will graduate is higher the more selective the college,” Karabel said. “If the kid goes to, let’s say, Brooklyn College, if he was able to get into NYU, the likelihood he’ll graduate is higher if he were to get into NYU.”
The future justice eventually chose Georgetown University, where he was valedictorian and graduated summa cum laude.
In the case now before the court, Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Abigail Fisher, who is white, is arguing that the university denied her admission based on her race and that minority students “with lower grades who weren’t in all of the activities I was in” were accepted in her place.
The justices now must consider the role of affirmative action in public colleges to determine if the practice of taking into account the race of prospective applicants can play a role in his or her admission.
Scalia, considered to be one of the most conservative members of the court, incorrectly argued on Wednesday 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.”
The comments sparked outrage among supporters of affirmative action and inspired the hashtag #StayMadAbby, which African-American students posted along with pictures of themselves graduating from some of those “more advanced” schools. (Abby is Fisher’s nickname.)
“Graduated May 2012. Abby would’ve been my classmate. You really tried it. Bloop #StayMadAbby #BlackTexasEx,” tweeted Alexis D. George, a University of Texas-Austin graduate. Alongside it, she posted a picture of herself in her University of Texas cap and orange gown.
Bruce Allen Murphy, who wrote about Scalia’s early-life failures in Scalia: A Court of One, told The Daily Beast he doesn’t believe the justice’s early life had much to do with his comments. Instead, Murphy said Scalia makes these intentionally inflammatory comments on purpose, in part to rile up a captive media.
“Scalia’s been doing this kind of thing on a fairly regular basis since 2006,” said Murphy, who also is the Fred Morgan Kirby Professor of Civil Rights at Lafayette College. “In 2005, he doesn’t get appointed chief justice. He gets passed over for John Roberts. He is the older generation on the court, and he went on what I call the Dead Constitution Tour. It’s just a matter of waiting for the next shoe to drop as to what he will say and what he will do.
“He wants to be the justice who is talked about and is considered. We have a presidential candidate a lot like that.”