Earlier this month, Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber released a statement acknowledging that “racism and the damage it does to people of color” persist at the Ivy League university. Eisgruber confessed that “racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself,” deep in the “nuts and bolts of University management.” He offered a set of proposals to remedy Princeton’s racist history, including hiring more black faculty and changing racially insensitive “campus iconography.”
In response to this admission of racism by a university that receives millions of dollars in public support, the Department of Education has launched an investigation into Princeton’s apparently false certifications of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity protocols. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in any institution that receives federal funding. Presumably, falsely certifying compliance with civil rights law is a federal crime and could involve stiff penalties.
Princeton’s response to news of the investigation reflects the insincerity of its original mea culpa. “It is unfortunate,” the university explains in a statement, “that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.” In other words, “Yes, of course we are racist, but not that kind of racist.”
The DoE has called Princeton’s bluff on the question of systemic racism, and not a moment too soon. The entire country has been forced to listen, for months now, as a parade of elite institutions—universities, banks, media outlets, a national political party, entire professions—issue laments about systemic American racism and their own complicity in the perpetuation of whiteness.
This orgy of recrimination is patently insincere. Does anyone believe these people, or imagine that their contrition is real? Of course not. Qui s’accuse, s’excuse, the French say: who accuses oneself, excuses oneself. The whole rigamarole is a self-justifying performance by whites for an audience of likeminded other whites: beatified souls who have achieved a state of grace. They stand in opposition to bad whites, who refuse to apologize for their privilege.
The emphasis on privilege reveals the implicit snobbery of the whole project. The assumption of privilege (however defined) is that other people are jealous of you—or should be. But how vain do you have to be to think that 40 million other people, solely by virtue of their racial origin, would want to trade places with you? Black people have houses, drive cars, order take-out, go on vacation, and so on.
Education secretary Betsy DeVos or whoever in the DoE decided to initiate the investigation has executed a jiu-jitsu maneuver with the potential to neutralize the entire systemic racism narrative. If racism is institutionally embedded somewhere, the United States has a juggernaut of laws, courts, investigators, and prosecutors that can tear the offending institution into shreds and pulverize its racism. This isn’t 1955 anymore.
So bring out your systemic racism, Princeton—let’s see it. Because if it isn’t documented or identifiable somewhere, or if it lurks below the level of consciousness as implicit bias, then it’s like phlogiston or aether, and just a form of juju or magical thinking. And for that matter, Eisgruber has been leading Princeton since 2013. Has he just become aware of the systemic racism that he claims is shot through his entire institution? If he only noticed it now, he must have been blind. If he knew it was there all along, then he has been unethical. Either way, shouldn’t he be fired?
For too long, false confessions of racial piety have been used as a cudgel to intimidate reasonable people and transform American institutions. The Trump administration is right to take the systemic racists at their word and make their contrition cost them something.
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