Racism at Princeton: now you see it, now you don’t

John Kane-Berman writes on how best to respond to self-flagellating virtue signalling

Dear oh dear, what a pretty kettle of fish! In October last year Princeton put out a press statement announcing that the university was “extremely proud” to have received a national award for “excellence in diversity and inclusion”.

In July this year, however, several hundred Princeton professors and other academics signed a letter to the university’s president, Chris Eisgruber, in which they stated that “anti-black racism” played a powerful role at Princeton despite its “declared values of diversity and inclusion”. This prompted an admission of guilt from Mr Eisgruber, who wrote in an open letter earlier this month that racism persisted at Princeton and remained “embedded” in its structures.

Have race relations at Princeton deteriorated so badly in the eleven months since it won that diversity award? Or did it accept the award under false pretences? More seriously, has the university been misrepresenting its “non-discrimination and equal opportunity” policies and achievements for several years now?

One person who would like to know is Robert King, assistant secretary in the office of post-secondary education in the United States Department of Education. Two weeks ago he addressed a letter to Mr Eisgruber referring to the latter’s admissions about racism at Princeton.

Since Mr Eisgruber had become president of the university in 2013, Mr King wrote, the institution had received well over $75 million in federal funding. This was in return for repeated assurances that Princeton complied with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited anyone who received federal assistance from discriminating on racial grounds.

Princeton, said Mr King, had made many material “non-discrimination” representations to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates. Mr Eisgruber’s admission raised concerns that these representations may have been “false, misleading, and actionable”. He was accordingly asked to provide records, as well as personnel for interviews under oath, and was warned that the secretary for education might consider “an action to recover funds”.

Among the records to be produced are all those relating to the “embedded” and “systemic” racism referred to in Mr Eisgruber’s open letter; representations to the public and various federal agencies about Princeton’s non-discrimination policy; and spreadsheets identifying all persons subjected by Princeton to discrimination.

Mr Eisgruber is asked also to state how many individuals have been subjected to discrimination by any federally-funded programme on the grounds of race, colour, or national origin since January 2015. He must then state whether or not this number is “evidence of systemic or embedded racism”.

How ironic. Here we have a leading university proudly accepting a diversity award, but then shortly afterwards accusing itself of racism, while the federal government says, “Very well, give us chapter and verse, prove your guilt, and, if you do, you’ll have to pay back the money you obtained from us under false pretences”.

Mr King must have chuckled quite a bit as he composed his letter to the university after its “shocking admissions”. He no doubt chuckled even more as he sent copies to the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice “for any additional action they deem appropriate”.  

What of the hundreds who signed the letter demanding that Princeton publicly acknowledge that racism “thrives” on the campus? The letter is signed by professors ranging across dozens of different disciplines – including humanities, languages, social sciences, classics, arts, physical sciences, law, medicine, history, aerospace, energy, oceanic studies, security, economics, and gender and sexuality studies. A dozen or more of the signatories are professors of African American studies.

That so wide a range of academics have joined together to launch so damning an accusation suggests that the entire institution is shot through with racism, including “micro-aggression”, “outright racist incidents”, racism in the “campus make-up and hiring practices”, and “systemic racism”. Presumably they will have no difficulty in providing Mr King and the federal Department of Education with all the necessary spreadsheets and other evidence required.

But questions abound. Why is Princeton only now owning up to this shocking state of affairs? Has Princeton suddenly become a thoroughly racist institution? Or has this been a gradual process? Has Mr Eisgruber been asleep on the job? Has “systemic racism” been there all along, or is it a new discovery? Has Princeton perhaps decided to self-identify as racist?

Have all those hundreds of Princeton profs been totally powerless as racism has embedded itself on the campus, or have some of them been party to this process? Have some of them been happy to take federal dollars for their programmes while keeping shtumm about racism on campus?

Does the university knowingly accept diversity awards it doesn’t deserve, or out of ignorance of what a rotten racist institution it really is? When Princeton tells parents and students and the federal government that it does not discriminate, is this a deliberate lie?

To borrow a phrase from Private Eye, “I think we should be told.”

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.