"The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case that could determine the future of affirmative action in college admissions. Much of the discussion on the day of the arguments (and since) was about comments by Justice Antonin Scalia, who embraced the "overmatching" argument used by critics of affirmative action, saying that minority students may benefit from going to less prestigious colleges than the more competitive ones to which affirmative action helps them gain admission.
"But now another statement in the arguments is attracting more attention and criticism. That was a question by Chief Justice John Roberts (at right): "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?"Hundreds of physicists have now signed an open letter criticizing the chief justice.
"The letter first notes the questions he didn't ask. "We note that it is important to call attention to questions that weren’t asked by the justices, such as, 'What unique perspectives do white students bring to a physics class?' and 'What are the benefits of homogeneity in that situation?' We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant and ask, 'Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?'"
"As to the question from the chief justice, the letter says: "The implication that physics or 'hard sciences' are somehow divorced from the social realities of racism in our society is completely fallacious. The exclusion of people from physics solely on the basis of the color of their skin is an outrageous outcome that ought to be a top priority for rectification. The rhetorical pretense that including everyone in physics class is somehow irrelevant to the practice of physics ignores the fact that we have learned and discovered all the amazing facts about the universe through working together in a community. The benefits of inclusivity and equity are the same for physics as they are for every other aspect of our world. The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students. Minority students in a classroom are not there to be at the service of enhancing the experience of white students."