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And they have. Recently, chairs of African American studies departments at Georgetown, Notre Dame, Fordham, and other Catholic universities and colleges asserted that “systemic racism and white supremacy are problems” at their campuses. “Symbolic statements, marches, token town halls, or other typical measures to pacify our campus communities,” they warned, are insufficient “while grave inequities persist.” A letter to the trustees and president of Dartmouth from professors and staff there called for the dismantling of “structures that implicitly or explicitly work against and devalue Black, Brown, and other people of color at Dartmouth.” Faculty and staff members at the University of Chicago set forth “a set of specific and immediate actions the [university] must take to begin to repair and redress its long history of willingly enabling and directly contributing to structural racism.” If their requirements remain unmet, they said, they will decline to participate in university affairs, urge colleagues at other institutions to boycott the university, and prevent the university from using their accomplishments to launder the “neglect and derision of people of color and scholarship and teaching on race.”
These and similar protests are part of an international eruption of outrage against racism and an insistence that positive change — real change — be pursued immediately. That dissent is splendid in many respects, displaying creativity, persistence, and bravery in demanding the redress of long-neglected racial wrongs. After all, according to virtually every indicator of well-being imaginable — life expectancy, wealth, income, access to education and health care, risk of victimization by violent criminality, likelihood of being arrested or incarcerated — a distinct, adverse gap separates Blacks from whites. The dissidents and their allies have refused to allow business to proceed as usual. They have pushed racial inequity to the front of popular consciousness. They have crammed into a couple of months more public education about matters of race than has taken place in years. They have been the heroes of the George Floyd moment.
Activists have crammed into a couple of months more public education about matters of race than has taken place in years.
But being on the side of anti-racism is no inoculation against error. An allegation of systemic racism leveled against a university is a serious charge. If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong. If an allegation is flimsy or baseless, however, it ought to be recognized as such. Engaging in the urgent work of anti-racist activism should entail avoidance of mistaken charges that cause wrongful injury, exacerbate confusion, and sow distrust that ultimately weakens the struggle.
One might wonder about the need to voice such an obvious observation. The fact is that this moment of laudable protest has been shadowed by a rise in complacency and opportunism. Some charges of racism are simply untenable. Some complainants are careless about fact-finding and analysis. And some propose coercive policies that would disastrously inhibit academic freedom.
“Anti-Black racism,” the ultimatum reads, “has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices. … We call upon the administration to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations. ” A long list of demands follows. In order “to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution,” the university is called upon to “redress the demographic disparity on Princeton’s faculty immediately and exponentially by hiring more faculty of color”; “elevate faculty of color to prominent leadership positions”; “implement administration- and faculty-wide training that is specifically anti-racist”; “commit fully to anti-racist campus iconography”; “remove questions about misdemeanors and felony convictions from admissions applications”; “fund a chaired professorship in Indigenous Studies for a scholar who decenters white frames of reference”; “require anti-bias training for all faculty participating in faculty searches”; “give new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1 that cover rent deposits, first month’s rent, and rent and food for the summer.” The ultimatum also insists that the university “constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty. ”
Should one believe, as the ultimatum charges, that anti-Black racism is “rampant” at Princeton despite its “declared values of diversity and inclusion?” The exploitation and exclusion of African Americans is, indeed, deeply embedded in Princeton’s history. Its early presidents were slaveholders who occasionally auctioned their human property. John Witherspoon, for instance, was a member of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence who lectured against emancipating slaves and later opposed abolition in New Jersey. The anti-Black prejudice of another president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, seeped into public policy during his stint as president of the United States. Because of his racism, the university has removed his name from its school of public and international affairs and otherwise demoted his standing on campus. No African American graduated from Princeton until 1947. The university did not hire a tenure-track Black professor until 1955. Because of reactionary racial attitudes that casually manifested themselves on campus, Princeton was widely seen as the “Southern” Ivy.
Since the 1960s, however, and with increasing momentum, Princeton has persistently made special efforts to recruit, admit, and graduate African American and other minority students. While many have participated in this metamorphosis, no one was more consequential than the late Princeton president William G. Bowen, an impassioned advocate for racial affirmative action as both an administrator and a scholar. His 1998 book (co-written with Harvard University president Derek Bok), The Shape of the River, is an oft-cited brief for race-conscious measures designed to ensure racial integration at selective institutions of higher education. His successors have also been strong proponents of racial affirmative action. A new Princeton is eclipsing the old.
Moreover, Princeton has served as the professional home of a range of distinguished educators of color, including Toni Morrison, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Valerie Smith (president of Swarthmore College) and Ruth Simmons (president of Prairie View A&M University and president emeritus of Brown University). These are formidable personalities with a demonstrated ability to make known their views. None of them have castigated Princeton in a fashion consistent with the charge that it is a place at which racism is “rampant.” When Cornel West retired from Princeton in May 2012, he spoke of having been “blessed” by his association with an institution that had evolved from being known as the northernmost tip of the Confederacy into a community “consecrated by a new legacy.”
Obviously there are differences of opinion among Princetonians of color; some did sign the ultimatum. But if racism is as big and stultifying a presence as the ultimatum suggests, it is a mystery that so many Black Princetonians could have somehow overlooked it.
To be fair, the authors do get specific with respect to certain matters. They maintain that a “glaring” example of the university’s “failure” to “elevate more faculty of color to prominent leadership positions” is that “never once has the Humanities Council been directed by a scholar from an underrepresented group.” The Humanities Council brings together leaders from a wide range of academic departments, fosters interdisciplinary initiatives, and advises the university administration. The letter writers also assert that “the Council’s most important outward facing program, the prestigious Society of Fellows, has never once had a director of color.” Assuming the accuracy of these facts, do they make a convincing case of racial “exclusion” in the broader context of racial change at Princeton?
No, they do not. The claim of racial exclusion is implausible. For years now, throughout the university, there has existed a self-conscious impulse to promote people of color to positions of leadership. Either today or in the very recent past, Black professors have been chairs of the departments of history, anthropology, English, religion, African American studies, and the Lewis Center for the Arts. Black professors have also served as the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs and as the director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Scores of scholars of color have been Humanities Council fellows. The general counsel of the university is Latinx. The dean of admissions is African American. The recently retired vice chair of the university board of trustees, Brent Henry, a Black lawyer keenly attuned to matters of racial equity, has been for at least the past decade one of the three or four most important figures in the governance of the university.
Current trustees include Terri Sewell, an African American member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Henri Ford, the Haitian American dean of the University of Miami School of Medicine; and Melanie Lawson, a seasoned African-American television journalist. These people, all Princeton alumni, are alert and capable and in demand. They are by no means needy. They could associate themselves with any number of prestigious enterprises. They would surely decline to contribute to or be involved with the sort of institution that the ultimatum depicts. This power and privilege is possessed also by many of the authors and signatories of the ultimatum, which accounts in part for the whiff of bad faith that suffuses the whole affair.
The suggestion that these statistics show racial unfairness in hiring at Princeton is misleading. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, African Americans in recent years earned only around 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. In engineering it was around 4 percent. In physics around 2 percent. Care must be taken to look for talent in places other than the familiar haunts of Ivy League searches. But even when such care is taken, the resultant catch is almost invariably quite small.
The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking. They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.
The racial demographics of its faculty does not reflect a situation in which the university is putting a thumb on the scale against racial-minority candidates. To the contrary, the university is rightly putting a thumb on the scale in favor of racial-minority candidates. That the numbers remain small reflects the terrible social problems that hinder so many racial minorities before they even have a fighting chance to enter into the elite competitions from which Princeton selects its instructors. The ultimatum denies or minimizes this pipeline problem.
What I am saying is widely known within the university but largely unspoken, because it has become bad manners for a person of progressive inclination to point out obvious fallacies of the sort that damage the credibility of the Princeton ultimatum and similar protests. As everyone knows, some signers of group letters join out of feelings of general solidarity, rather than specific agreement. And peer pressure accounts for the apparent approval of some who actually disagree but want to protect their reputations.
But a lack of candor is not limited to some of the dissidents. The evasiveness, if not mendacity, of administrators is a large part of the problem. They often pander to protestors, issuing faux mea culpas that any but the most gullible observers recognize as mere public relations ruses aimed at pacification. In July, for example, in the course of saluting Black Lives Matter, the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth stated: “We know there are no easy solutions to eradicate the oppression and racism Black and other students, faculty, and staff of color experience on our campus.” The Board then proceeded to list several remedial initiatives it was authorizing, none of which, singly or collectively, came close to addressing “the oppression and racism” that it appeared to concede as a major feature of life at Dartmouth. It is easy to see how the disparity in scope between the problem and the response would lead many to conclude that the authorities at Dartmouth did not actually believe their self-criticism. No wonder faculty dissidents responded with demands that the administration “take concrete steps to unravel its built-in structural racism perpetuated through the superficial and short-term fixes that our senior leadership constantly applies to the problem.”
Being on the side of anti-racism is no inoculation against error.
Whatever wrongs universities have perpetrated or neglected to rectify are compounded when university authorities speak thoughtlessly or insincerely about matters that cut so deeply. When a substantial number of professors indict a university on charges of “systemic racism,” the president of the university ought to state publicly whether or to what extent he or she agrees with the charge. Bureaucratic obfuscation ought not to be permitted. Neither should silence. Mistaken indictments that are opposed only by conservatives become entrenched and reiterated despite their weaknesses. And people are misled. Minority students who take such indictments at face value — unaware of strategic hyperbole — become overwhelmed by unrealistic fears of encountering racist assessments that will unfairly limit their possibilities for advancement.
When apprised of this provision, some signatories hoped that it would silently be abandoned. But not all. Andrew Cole, a professor of English, for instance, explicitly defended it: “In a country so embarrassingly incapable of acknowledging its history of racism and anti-Black terrorism,” he wrote, “it strikes many of us as a curious indirection to talk about academic freedom when we speak of anti-racism.” Starting with the proposition that “racism” is unethical, and that the university prohibits unethical research, Cole concludes that the university has an obligation to root out racist research, racist publication, and racist teaching.
Cole’s argument is specious. The university’s prohibition on “unethical” research applies to research based on fraudulence — for example, a researcher claiming to have tested 10 animals when she only tested five — or to violations of protocols guiding research on humans. Determining whether research is “racist,” by contrast, takes one into a realm of ideological contestation in which, at a secular, modern research university, there should be no imposition of orthodoxy of the sort that the ultimatum threatens.
Yes, Princeton University does officially endorse certain tenets. It endorses democracy, freedom, the value of truth seeking, and policies that expressly welcome the education of students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or place of birth. So the university does adopt certain political positions. But it does so sparingly, diffidently, in a minimalist spirit that enables it to host a broad range of scholarly and artistic constituencies, methodologies, commitments, and styles limited only by guild-based conceptions of competency.
A professor at Princeton University need not worry about being investigated or disciplined for writing a book propounding the idea that the world would have been better off had England squashed the American uprising in 1776, or that it is preferable to say that “women” get pregnant as opposed to saying that “people” get pregnant, or that abortion is a moral abomination, or that restricting abortion rights is a moral abomination, or that racial affirmative action has been a failure, or that racial affirmative action has been a success, or that it is perfectly appropriate to enunciate the word “nigger” in full for pedagogical purposes, or that the N-word should never be voiced under any circumstances. The existing horizon of intellectual freedom at the university is gloriously wide open — as it should be.
How would the anti-racism committee demanded by the letter decide whether to investigate a complaint? Having investigated and found an infraction, what kind of discipline would it levy? Would a professor be engaging in censurable “racist” conduct if she argued on behalf of broad rights to abortion? Some claim that such a position is “anti-Black.” What about a professor arguing in favor of decreasing the size of police forces? Some argue that that position is “anti-Black,” too, since it could lead to greater vulnerability of Black people to violent criminality. What about a professor arguing in favor of freely permitting inter-racial adoptions? Some insist that such a regime facilitates anti-Black cultural genocide. And what about a professor who expresses admiration for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad? After all, the leader of the Nation of Islam taught that whites were, quite literally, “devils.” To open the door even a crack to the possibility of “investigations” into such matters under the aegis of the university is antithetical to the freedom essential to intellectuals and artists in institutions of higher learning.
Non-governmental cultural institutions — newspapers, journals, museums, and so on — are essential, vulnerable, and under attack. This is particularly true of the selective, cosmopolitan research colleges and universities, which many on the political right especially loathe. The aspiration of those institutions is to search for truth, cultivate knowledge, and nourish and satisfy curiosities about virtually everything. They fall short, of course, as do all institutions. But nowhere in American society is more of a concerted and intelligent effort being made to exemplify respect and collaboration. The Princeton ultimatum engages in unwarranted vilification, which is wrong. For progressives, such vilification is also profoundly self-defeating.