Friday, December 11, 2015

Physics and Minorities: A Non Answer to Chief Justice Roberts

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS:  What ­­unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? 
MR. GARRE:  Your Honor ­­ 
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS:  You're counting those among the classes in which there are no minority students. And I'm just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation? 
MR. GARRE:  Your Honor, we can talk about different classes, but ­­ but this Court has ­accepted in Bakke and Grutter, and I think it accepted again in Fisher, that student body diversity is a compelling interest.

The question Robert's asked is a good one. I can not answer Judge Robert's question, "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?" The reason I can not answer the question is that in my physics classes (I took 7 physics classes) there were no minority students. 

I still wish I would have had the opportunity to have gotten to know that answer. It was a short coming of much of my university science education. 

(Complete transcript (
The University of Texas was defending its admission policies for student diversity this week before the Supreme Court. The question by Justice Roberts got some attention (roberts-affirmative-action-physics). The question is a good one. And one that I have found many scientists have noted in their own personal experience. The answer within the transcript is not directly towards the point of the question and is lost in precedent case reference and within the larger context of the various nuances of efforts to ensure a diverse experience for university students. And in this case the oral arguments are rather choppier than even the usual dialog that takes place during Supreme Court oral arguments. 


Rick Gauger said...

I'm a 73-year-old white middle class guy. I grew up as an army brat and lived all over the world. When I was an undergrad at the University of Florida in 1963-65, I was a dues-paying member of the Student Group For Equal Rights. I participated in sit-ins, picketing, walk-outs, etc. as we agitated for desegregation of the University and various off-campus businesses. I was roughed up by redneck sheriffs and shouted at by christian-right-wingers. After that I was an army officer for eight years, the whole time doing my best to promote racial and ethnic equality wherever I was assigned.

After two tours in the Vietnam War, I left the army. I stayed more or less depressed and unemployed for the next 27 years. I applied repeatedly for Civil Service jobs during the first eight years. At one point, in some Washington DC office building, a clerk felt sorry for me. He took me across the hall into an unlit unused office suite where they had stored stacks and stacks of dossiers. He said, "You see these? These are applications for Civil Service jobs."

I said, "But what about my military service? Isn't that worth anything?"

He replied, "Technically, yes, but in reality, no. If you were a black woman, I could hire you on the spot."

For me, this was just one of the many bitter chuckles of the Vietnam War.

In 1993, a veteran friend persuaded me to go to the Veterans Administration. There I saw thousands of veterans being helped regardless of race. It was a good experience and I'll always be grateful to the VA. In 2000, after years of therapy, counseling, and interviews, I was designated 100% disabled with PTSD and service-related skin problems. I'm now financially secure and more or less at peace (and geology is one of my hobbies).

Like you, I also don't know what difference an ethnic/racial minority viewpoint would make to a physics class. I suspect that 'minority viewpoints' have no place in science, but I support the notion that diversity in job opportunity, etc. is good for our country.

Back in the days of the civil rights struggle in the South, I agitated for Affirmative Action, a policy which gives non-white candidates an extra advantage over whites in jobs and student slots, regardless of qualifications. I felt that, after centuries of hostility and discrimination, non-whites had it coming. That was two generations ago. How much longer should Affirmative Action prevail?

I have no idea. But that's what the current Supreme Court case is about.

Dan McShane said...

Thanks for the thoughtful perspective Rick. It did strike me that Texas had come up with a much better system than the simple quota approach that has been used by some.