Hall of Mirrors - A Litany of Scalias

Hall of Mirrors - A Litany of Scalias

"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 less -- a slower-track school where they do well"  
     - Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2015, paraphrasing an argument he finds persuasive

This Autumn, I participated in a forum on Race and Political Theory at the University of Gießen, which is an hour outside of Frankfurt.  The symposium was organised by various faculty and graduate students, mainly from the Rhein-Main region, working on race from within the disciplines of politics and philosophy.  The weekend was inspiring.  I have a great deal of flexibility at my home institution, Birkbeck College, to research on race and use interdisciplinary methods, in a law faculty no less.  Researching within philosophy, political science or law in German academia is a different story.  This was mirrored rather dramatically by the space in which the symposium was held.

Flanking each side of the long conference room was a wall of portraits of scholars from the early history of the university.  Not a few, but many.  Dozens.  It was like nothing I had ever seen in a university hall, a daunting display of elite white men, in cottony wigs, dark robes and scholarly white bibs. There was diversity, of course—some of the wigs were parted, some combed back; some of the robes were adorned with red, some were not; some of the faces were austere, some smirking slightly.  The space was a discussion point, the perfect place to reflect on the institutional whiteness of the university and the ideological challenges we planned within respective disciplines.

The room was a disciplining space, a galaxy of identical eyes glaring at us from beyond the centuries.  Had our meeting not been explicitly dedicated to discussing race in the academy, and had people of colour not comprised over half the event’s participants, it may have been harder to subvert and redeploy the heaviness of that environment.   For students of colour using that room in Gießen more regularly, I imagine that they must develop survival tactics.  Perhaps they begin to see the portraits as a type of eccentric wallpaper, some faded Andy Warhol pop art rather than yet another material manifestation of the university as a white space—on top of the majority of the students and faculty sitting around them and writers on the syllabi.  It is important to consider institutional heritage generally, but must it take the dramatic form of a hall of mirrors?

Two weeks later I was sitting in a lecture hall in London, addressing the National Union of Studies Black Students' Conference. The walls of the hall were plastered, for the weekend, with posters of Angela Davis and criticisms of the PREVENT counter-terrorism monitoring strategy, and organisers gave tote bags adorned with Malcolm X, Audre Lorde and Arundhati Roy to participants.  These symbols mattered. They helped define the space.  Their eyes and ears demanded a different type of accountability, certainly.  The hall was full, and the message was clear.  The students would redefine what university education means, from access to curriculum.  A powerful notion from a powerful group.  It is important to have community in these spaces, for affirmation and support as well as critical challenge (as opposed to mere distraction). 


Justice Scalia is not the first person in a position of power to limit the aspirations of Black youth in the US, and he will not be the last.  His comments, at their most innocuous, paraphrase someone else’s contention, the mismatch theory, which argues that with the introduction of affirmative action policies, standards are lowered at universities in order to admit minorities.  This discussion is theoretically not up for constitutional debate in cases where race is actually used, however, since applicants need to be similarly situated in terms of the conventional criteria for admission before race can be considered.  At their most damaging, his comments entrench centuries-old racism, where the ability of Black people to think at the same level as whites has been regarded a fact of life, one to be managed rather than challenged.  

It’s also jarring that he would put his case in such racially blunt terms.  Not much reformulation needs to be made of his comments to glean the meaning—maybe Black students are just not ready to move into higher education en masse. One response, by Black students at the University of Texas, is: we are excelling. Another response, to quote Nina Simone's 1964 "Mississippi Goddamn"--too slow!  It is 2015, can the 'let's take it slow' approach really be the core message on the integration of institutions of higher education?  

Leave aside for a moment the idea that affirmative action policies are meant to be time-limited and  narrowly tailored in their application, rather than a permanent means of diversifying the student population.  It is troubling that Scalia's comments rely on a fundamental misreading of structural equality, which puts Black kids in a position that is generally less competitive than their white counterparts when it comes to applying to universities.  The road to lodging an application starts early in life and is affected by socio-economic status (which influences e.g., school district, access to standardised testing preparation, and extra tutoring and summer programmes), educational trackingfrom primary school onwards (based on teachers’ perceptions of the students’ abilities), the overpolicing of Black kids in schools and relative access to influential familial and social networks that all help determine a students’ competitiveness when applying to university.  It is not that Black kids are simply unfit for college; but rather, where there are differences, it is more likely that their educational pathways leading to university contain more obstacles and fewer opportunities, which is a part of the condition of US-society. 
The legal issues at stake for higher education are indeed interesting, particularly the articulation of diversity as a compelling state interest and the ability of educational institutions to define the importance of diversity for themselves. However, there should be just as much national interest in secondary education and primary school in shaping the opportunities of all children.

My lesson on tracking came in middle school.

There is no room.  My mother and I had an appointment with the principal of my new school.  It was the summer before eighth grade, and I had just moved from the neighbouring town.  I was a chubby, insecure Black kid armoured with near-perfect grades and the nerd-badge of participation in New Jersey's ‘Gifted and Talented’ programmes (experimental and advanced tuition for high-achieving students) in two previous school districts.  I had previously been asked to skip a grade, but declined because I did not want to leave my friends.  I loved learning and knew that I was excellent at school—there was absolutely no evidence to the contrary.  The principal was a stern-looking woman who wore a black skirt suit, had perfectly coiffed hair and spoke with utter authority. She was from a different world from my family, socioeconomically, and that was clear from the start. (I would later learn that she earned over $170,000/year by the time she retired).  She told my mother and me that all of the advanced classes were full, and that I would have to attend the general classes in math and English instead.  

                                                       Senatsaal, University of Gießen

You've outdone yourself.  I was a bookworm, so despite the setback in confidence, I won an armful of academic awards and certificates at the end of the year.  My English teacher, who was always very kind to me, shook my hand in the parking lot afterwards. ‘You’ve really outdone yourself,’ she said.  I tried not to overanalyse the comment, since she meant well, but it irritated me. Of course I was going to excel, I was in the general courses, and I had been scoring high in the advanced courses all my life, how was this ‘outdoing myself?’  Is this where I was supposed to be?  There was a bit of entitlement in my reaction, but it was mainly self-advocacy, self-defence.  I did not find the curriculum challenging, and I knew there were dozens of other students being challenged in the advanced courses. Besides, I couldn't help but distrust her.  She happened to alsoteach the advanced English course from which I was excluded, and I’d walked past her room on many occasions that year while that course was in session.  And there was space. 

You're going to drown. Towards the end of the year, we had to select courses for our first year of highschool.  My plan was to get myself back on track.  For that I would need to double up on English and math courses in 9th grade.  Math was essential, because without a sufficient level of math, I would not have been able to take Biochemistry or Advanced Placement (AP) Physics a year or two down the line.  I also needed to fit in language courses.  I took my course selection to my homeroom teacher, who had clearly lost the flare for inspiring students.  “Don't do this. You’re going to drown,” he said, shoulders slumped, staring down at the form.  I rmember looking at his droopy eyes and thinking: do none of these people want to see me back on the advanced track?

I was beginning to sense that I was being positioned and defined by something that had no bearing on reality, and certainly not on my own sense of where I belonged.  I was playing by the rules, or at least the ones I could see.  Eighth grade gave me the gift of awareness of the rules I couldn't see.

Up until that point, I had heard a dozen times from family members that I would have to work twice as hard as my (white) friends.  Maybe my experience was not all about race, but I would be surprised if the school would have allowed the child of an affluent white family to be tracked down into general classes at such a critical juncture, where the knock-on effects have a direct impact on competitiveness in the college application process.  I could be wrong, but I don't think I am.  I know one thing—I would have had an easier time in high school had I not been tracked down.  I would have been able to eat lunch all four years, rather than fill the lunch slots with extra classes to pay off the deficit of my eighth-grade curriculum.  I eventually got there, took all the AP courses I could manage, and was admitted to a range of good colleges.  I was lucky to have had a rock star high-school guidance counsellor, really supportive and kind friends, and an anger that motivated me rather than stifling me.  But it is annoying to have had to rely on luck.

For more insight on tracking, you can read this short article by the Brookings Institute on teacher expectations and this report from the Upjohn Institute on teacher-student demographic mismatch.

 Things that happen in the dark: Brexit and refugees

Things that happen in the dark: Brexit and refugees

Black American Refugees:  Crossing the Same River Twice

Black American Refugees: Crossing the Same River Twice