Education

Scalia Forgets: Black Students Must Work Twice as Hard as White Classmates

The US supreme court justice’s comments this week ignore how minorities don’t bow to the yoke of white supremacy, mediocrity and bigotry – they thrive.

group of african american college students studying together
Photo Credit: michaeljung

Justice Scalia is worried that affirmative action means black students are sometimes “pushed ahead too fast” and suggests we should go to “lesser schools” instead. The conservative US supreme court justice’s concerns are seriously misplaced. The larger issue is can the majority – who have enjoyed the advantage of systemic oppression – handle competition from students who for the length of this country’s history have had to be twice as competent with fewer resources and outlets?

As an African-American woman who went to an elite school, I know my life would’ve been different without Dartmouth. But the university would’ve been lesser without me, too, and the contributions I made while I was a student. 

My contributions to Dartmouth’s diversity go beyond what can be measured by metrics. Nowhere on the Dartmouth website will it tell you about the Sunday night forums held around my dinner table, where students from all walks of life broke bread and talked about what was on their mind, or problems they were having in the lab. It won’t tell you about the advice and care I gave to my residents as an undergraduate adviser. The website will pay lip service to community building, but it’s the students that do the heavy lifting by interacting and supporting one another. 

 

You have to get those stories from undergrads and professors. There are no profiles, no feature stories on those things and there shouldn’t be – I was simply actively participating in the Dartmouth community outside of the classroom.

To focus solely on my GPA and job title as indicators of my success misses the point. College isn’t just about classes, it’s about experiences. A diverse classroom is rife with potential for meaningful discussions and the proliferation of ideas. People of color decimate the challenges given to them in the classroom and in our time away from our desks we often bring depth, nuance and unfiltered perspectives to colleagues that cannot see an issue from a different angle. 

It is not the place of students of color to be forced to teach white students about themselves, but by simply existing in the ivory tower, the majority is forced to grapple with their long-held opinions.

 

I went to school with students (of different races and economic backgrounds) that were better at certain skills than I was, and sitting in a classroom with them pushed my critical-thinking skills to the brink, enhanced my world view and flooded the nooks and crannies of my psyche with new stimuli. I was told “no” at Dartmouth more times than I can count – when I wanted to do an independent study, when I wanted to do a foreign study program and when I wanted to create a senior thesis. I took those “no’s” and tried to turn them into positive experiences. While I was supposed to be abroad I landed my first publishing contract. I was 19 years old.

People of color are thriving at a competitive level instead of just bowing to the yoke of white supremacy, mediocrity and bigotry. Many of this year’s protests by students of color at universities illustrate the disconnect: we’re here, we’re smart, we deserve better than what we’ve been given and we want to be equal – and that includes being represented. 

There’s nothing like being in a competitive environment and seeing someone who looks like you thriving. That’s why seeing professors of color is so important; it isn’t just about the subjects they teach (but those are important too), but the fact that they’ve been through this trial by fire and survived to tell the tale and shape young minds.

 

In my senior year of college, I sat on the Women of Dartmouth panel and gave an accounting of my four years in the middle of the woods. I shared things I learned about myself and the education system in hopes that it would help another student quietly struggling to get by. I tried to dispel the shame of struggling, because I knew that because I didn’t give up, I didn’t break under the pressure – I bloomed. 

In Scalia’s world, elite colleges would continue the system of exploitation and become factories producing lily white products that are xenophobic and out of touch, provocative only because their beliefs go unchecked and un-countered by people actually living the experiences that students only discuss theoretically. In these hostile educational environments people used the suggestion that people of color were affirmative action admissions in order to invalidate and threaten those that dare to take up space and question inequality.

 

Scalia and his constituents are trying to silence the underdog and I refuse to be complicit. No one should be intimidated or discouraged from revealing their potential. Many elite schools are fraught with hostility for people of color, but also with opportunity. We must be prepared to meet with resistance because it will arm us to be agents of change – and that is exactly what the naysayers don’t want.

Latria Graham is a freelance writer and teaching artist from Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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