Princeton’s Confession: Racism or Wokeness?

It’s reminiscent of the days when it was all the rage to make every teacher, doctor and nurse a mandatory reporter of child abuse. It was done with the best of intentions, to remove the subjective component from the mix so that someone who didn’t feel a bruise was so bad as to be worthy of reporting could no longer hide behind personal feelings or experience. Report, or else. Report or you’re guilty too.

The problem of child abuse, it was decided, was sufficiently severe that any hint, any possibility, required an investigation. So what if the investigation was extremely unlikely to show any abuse. So what if the investigation removed a child from home, from family, which was often far more traumatic and dangerous than the slimmest possibility of harm. This was about child abuse. CHILD ABUSE! How could anyone doubt the seriousness of the problem. How could anyone believe that the combination of unlikelihood and trauma mattered more than ferreting out child abuse.

Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, meant to do the right thing by his students and faculty.

President Christopher Eisgruber published an open letter earlier this month claiming that “racism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton” and that “racist assumptions” are “embedded in structures of the University itself.”

The letter could be well characterized as a confession.

Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.  Race-based inequities in America’s health care, policing, education, and employment systems affect profoundly the lives of our staff, students, and faculty of color.

Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.

Does this mean Princeton was actually engaging in racism? Well, in a very real way, that’s very much what it said, and gave numerous specifics about its current programs and intentions for future changes to address its “embedded racism.” Then again, this wasn’t racism as in a university-funded KKK chapter, or programs that refused to admit black or Hispanic students. This was the hyper-sensitive racism of the woke, reinventing racism to mean that requiring English majors to study Chaucer,* the “father of English literature,” was racist.

Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.  For example, Princeton inherits from earlier generations at least nine departments and programs organized around European languages and culture, but only a single, relatively small program in African studies.

Is that racism? It is if that’s what you want it to be. The problem is that there is a law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

This is the race version of Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination. If a university receiving tens of millions of federal funds announces that it’s racist, that racism is “embedded” in its very core, what is the Department of Education to do but the job entrusted to it by Congress and mandated by law?

“Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” the letter reads. “The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made. Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1094(c)(3)(B) and 34 CFR 668.71(c). Therefore, the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, in consultation with the Department’s Office of the General Counsel, is opening this investigation.”

Of course, the mere opening of an investigation, which is the beginning of a process and not a conclusion of wrongdoing, has generated outrage. After all, this is the DeVos DoE, and the Trump administration, and anything they do is by definition evil and malevolent, even if it’s exactly what the law requires and what Eisgruber proudly admitted was happening at Princeton.

The obvious response was that Princeton wasn’t saying it was racist racist, but woke racist. Confessing one’s racism is the current trend, and Eisgruber was doing nothing more than have Princeton’s hemline altered to be at the perfect height for the moment’s fashion.

This outrageous and awful violence has revealed yet again, and with searing intensity, the long, painful, and ongoing existence of anti-Black racism in America.  Racial justice demands the scholarly and practical attention of this University.  Princeton contributes to the world through teaching and research of unsurpassed quality, and we must continue to find ways to bring that mission to bear against racism, and against all of the discrimination that damages the lives of people of color.

It appears what Princeton is trying to say isn’t so much that it’s racist, but that it’s not sufficiently anti-racist, actively engaged in discriminating in favor of the marginalized and against the majority, to sate the lust of the most ardent Ibram X. Kendi acolyte. If that’s what it wants to be, to do, so be it, even though that might well expose it to a violation of Title VI whch prohibits racial discrimination, even if its intended victims aren’t black.

But isn’t a DoE investigation overkill, or at the very least a sham to taint Princeton and undermine its efforts to become virulently anti-racist? After all, everyone understands what Princeton is doing here, not admitting that it’s racist racist, but seeking to eradicate the vestiges of its racist existence as seen by its most vigilant and sensitive critic.

Perhaps, but then, did that bruise on the child’s leg come from him falling off the swings or because daddy beat him? Keep your squishy rationalizations to yourself and report. No racism will be tolerated.

*Should Princeton opt to expand the diversity of its curriculum, or eliminate Eurocentric aspects such as an English Department, that’s entirely its choice. But as commanded by “White Fragility,” the failure to admit racism means that it has yet to “reckon” with its “systemic racism” of teaching such things as the historic prevailing language and literature of America. That, in itself, is racist, according to the tenets of critical race theory, so confession is mandatory, not to mention good PR.

35 thoughts on “Princeton’s Confession: Racism or Wokeness?

  1. delurking

    It may or may not be a great idea for Princeton University to adjust its academic departments and programs to reflect world populations and history rather than US populations and history. However, if, as reported, the investigation was triggered by the open letter, then the investigators are buffoons. Different words have different meanings in different contexts, like when someone says “it’s a crime to waste that food.” There is nothing in that letter to indicate that Princeton is admitting to treating people differently because of their race (at least since they stopped doing that).

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s why they’re conducting an investigation, to ascertain whether something unlawful is happening.

      “But judge, when I confessed to murder, I didn’t mean the, you know, bad kind of murder.”

      1. delurking

        Tone is sometimes hard to discern in blog comments, so I’m not sure how you mean this reply. The DoE isn’t investigating everyone, all the time. One would think they have to have some reason to start an investigation. Eisgruber’s letter provides none, yet the DoE says that is the basis for their investigation. So, either the investigators are buffoons, or actual racial discrimination in education is so rare and the DoE investigation team so over-funded that they are basically reduced to choosing targets of investigation at random. Now that I’ve typed that, the latter explanation does not seem so unlikely.

        1. Sgt. Schultz

          I bet there’s a name for the delusion when you confuse your personal sensibilities for universal reality. If only there was someone here who could name it.

          And be thankful bad analogies aren’t a crime or you would be doing life.

        2. Sandia

          If you tell me you’re racist, I will take you at your word and treat you this way. I’m sure Princeton and other people who demand to see these types of debasement letters think that they’re doing it for the “greater good”, but they explicitly said “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” How is that not an explicit invite to DOE to investigate? We can “unpack” more of this “racial stereotypes” that get deployed – but of course, they mean for you to ignore the ones they use against Asian students in limiting their enrollment in these wonderful structurally racist institutions. Racism doesn’t go only in one direction. People have forgotten this – maybe we should rename it back to tribalism, perhaps people will understand again?

        3. Rengit

          He’s saying that there’s racism, and that there’s harm, i.e. “damage”, to black students. To any normal reasonable listener, that sounds like he’s admitting to discrimination against black students. An investigation will clear up the context in which the remarks were made, and beyond that how often have we heard from Robin DiAngelo and assorted big name anti-racists that intent doesn’t matter, context doesn’t matter, it’s only impact that counts?

        4. John J

          The investigation will be worthwhile if it discourages other university presidents from grovelling before the altar of critical race theory. In fact, it is a warning to any organization receiving Federal funds. Be careful with the masochistic confessions.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Oh shit!!!

    Does this mean we are gonna need one of those judges that Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was talking about the other day in Ohio?

    Or one of those judges that “understands”; what everyone understands?

    And who is gonna layer on the supervision of the prosecutor, that guy that was in Michigan the other day at Hillsdale College going on about how the criminal process is a juggernaut, something and then some more things about politics, and that he was one of only two former Attorneys General who went on to become Attorney General again?

    Oh shit, oh dear, oh yeahhhhh……

  3. Erik H

    I dislike and disagree with the ridiculous claim that our top universities–which are some of the more liberal, inclusive, and progressive places in the country, if not the entire planet–are hotbeds of institutional racism against BIPOC. (Racism against Asians, yes, almost certainly.) And I am oddly amused and somewhat tickled to see the most-woke folks hoist by their own petard.

    Still, this does seem like a stretch on the part of DOE and it’s hard to get behind it. Clearly one could read Princeton’s letter as an admission of Title IX violations…. but then again, the statement “our school is racist” or “our faculty is racist” seems to be coming up more and more often. It’s probably Item 1 on every single diversity training and we all know how common those are these days. Just recently there was a huge thread of some other university whose faculty started a meeting by admitting to racism.

    While I’m happy to see woke-speak get smacked, I dislike governmental discretion (which “we are racists here?” speeches get investigated and which one’s don’t?) getting whipped out for political reasons, and I don’t think it’s likely to be a good trend. And I would be equally unhappy if a Dem DOE started investigating colleges for “racism” if they opposed woke-speak.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is the lesson not to cry racist if you’re just signaling your anti-racist virtue or not to investigate someone who cries racist? Bear in mind that we have laws that were written in the days when discrimination on the basis of race was considered a bad thing in itself. Just because proclaiming yourself a racist is now the fashion trend doesn’t make the laws go away.

      1. Erik H

        I dream of a day when the word “racist” does not get used to describe “mildly disagreeing with Ibrahim Kendi,” but I’m not holding my breath. If this manages to limit the Struggle Session trend in modern academia, then at least this fiasco would bear fruit.

        Still, we know from widely available context that Princeton is using the absolute broadest definition. So this seems about as likely to be a title IX admission of guilt as my friend saying “I’m going to KILL my boyfriend for eating my cookies” is likely to be a conspiracy to murder. If we’re going to take unsworn public speeches as evidence, why ignore all of the other stuff which provides context?

        I am 100% in agreement with you that racial discrimination is illegal. The DOE should probably investigate Princeton for anti-Asian discrimination, just as it should be lining up investigations in case CA drops it’s “racial discrimination is illegal” law (which CA is trying to do.) This, though, is political posturing. And so I oppose it on principle, even though I like the result.

        Happy anniversary, BTW. I’m coming up on 23 this year myself.

        1. SHG Post author

          And if they’re not racist but just pretending to be for the sake of the children, then the outcome of the investigation is that they’re not racist. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

        2. David

          Yes, everyone knows Eisgruber was spewing woke bullshit because it’s the thing to do these days to prove how anti-racist you are. Is that how a govt entity should address a public admission of unlawful conduct?

          Seriously, what would anyone expect to happen here? He said it out loud. They do what the law requires them to do.

    2. Bob S

      There is room for subtlety even in the halls of the state. If the DoE were mounting a wholesale offensive to claw back funding from universities across the nation (and maybe this is a testbed for just that? I’m not saying I have any faith in the restraint of a government agency), but this seems more like a well deserved poke in the ribs. Institutions like Princeton which take exquisite care to avoid racist practices continuing to beat the drum that it’s not enough, not enough, never enough, cause real harm to the goal of reconciling Americans, and it should rightly be checked.

      1. SHG Post author

        That’s an interesting point: Is the message that no matter how non-racist you are, it’s never enough to not be racist? If so (and let’s assume Eisgruber was sincere), what are the implications for all colleges?

        1. Erik H

          “Is the message that no matter how non-racist you are, it’s never enough to not be racist?”

          Yes, quite literally! The new prophet is Kendi; he (and those who follow him) allows for no neutrality on racism.
          1) “not racist” is different from “anti racist,”
          2) therefore “not racist” is racist, and, for good measure,
          3) the assertion that “not racist” is not racist (or that the whole approach is a steaming pile of bullshit) is, itself, also racist.

          Really, I am not making this up.

    1. SHG Post author

      Are they being punished for speech, or investigated for whether the underlying conduct is a violation of Title VI, as they say it is? I see no 1st A issue here at all.

  4. Brennan

    What about the facts the letter cites to as the basis for the conclusion that Princeton is racist? It says that Princeton used to discriminate in admissions fifty years ago, but that’s not relevant to any ongoing violation of Title VI. It also mentions vaguely that some people on campus are overtly or inadvertently racist, but says nothing about anyone being denied benefits of any program, or participation in a program. That just leaves people being discriminated against in the program, but single acts of discrimination by individuals, rather than the institution, provide a pretty weak basis for an investigation. It’s also pretty disingenuous, given this DoE’s approach to Title IX. I think it’s moving in the right direction in the Title IX context, but this seems like its moving backwards on Title VI. Given that context, it’s difficult to see this as not being an attempt to punish Princeton for speech the government just doesn’t like.

    1. SHG Post author

      He brought up examples of past and present discrimination. How one Title VI investigation in any relates to the hundreds of Title IX investigations is kinda hard to follow. And what speech doesn’t the government like? Princeton calling itself racist? I doubt anyone in govt is losing sleep over that speech.

      1. Brennan

        The past discrimination he cited is borderline irrelevant to whether anyone in the last several decades has been discriminated against in violation of Title VI. He says “ At a University that, for most of its history, intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews, and other minorities, Princetonians— from the oldest alumni to the newest undergraduates — now take pride in the diversity of our community.” Right before that sentence, he says that for at least fifty years, Princeton has not being discriminating in that way. He also says that racist assumptions inherited from Princeton’s past continue to plague it, but the example he gives is “at least nine departments and programs organized around European languages and culture, but only a single, relatively small program in African studies.” His characterization of this aside, the actual facts he cites don’t indicate that anyone was excluded, denied participation, or discriminated against. The remaining example in the paragraph beginning with “Racism and the damage it does” is extremely vague, and given the last part of that paragraph it seems clear that he’s talking about racism in the hyper-woke way that has little if anything to do with anything prohibited under Title VI. I just don’t see any facts he cites in here that, if true, establish a Title VI violation. That’s especially so when you examine his claims in the context of the full letter. Knowing that this guy said Princeton is racist is like knowing that Ibram Kendi said federalism is racist; they’re just using these terms in such a different way from how any applicable law uses them that their use of the word is nearly meaningless to understanding whether anyone violated the law.

        The Title IX situation is relevant because under the Obama DoE, schools were told they were violating Title IX based on an extremely broad reading of that law. So using a clear and convincing standard became the denial of benefits or participation in a program on the basis of sex. Similarly, investigating Princeton for a Title VI violation based on the facts as stated in the letter expands the terms in Title VI beyond a reasonable interpretation.

        The government probably doesn’t care in the abstract whether Princeton calls itself racist, but the Trump administration clearly dislikes woke-speak (and I can’t blame them for that). It seems that the DoE is using the conclusions in the president’s letter to punish the college for engaging in that kind of speech. It’s not “we hate that you said you’re racist,” it’s “we hate your whinging about how it’s racist to have only one African Studies program.”

        1. Miles

          Instead of murdering all those words to say nothing, did you ever consider not murdering all those words to say nothing?

        2. Rengit

          This is cogently argued, but he talks about how “racist structures” in the university continue to exist, and are in fact “embedded”, suggestive that such structures are foundational to Princeton, and that they are doing “damage” currently to black students currently enrolled at the university. He’s not merely talking about the school’s past historical wrongs by making these statements. He could just say, “It’s all in the past, and the university today is not racist and does not discriminate”, which would satisfy Title VI, but that sort of abstract liberal (classical liberal, Cold War liberal, generic Clinton liberal, however else you want to style what I grew up thinking of the liberal stance as) conception of racism and discrimination does not satisfy the wokies at Princeton that are caught up in historicism.

          By taking the woke stance, in which the line between past and present is blurred, he’s saying that there is currently ongoing discriminatory harm against black students, which Title VI is intended to remedy.

          1. Brennan

            I get that, I just think the context of the letter makes it so that when he says “racist” it doesn’t actually indicate discrimination on the basis of race as that term is used in Title VI. It’s sort of like how on Twitter, if one person dunks on someone else, it’s common to see someone else make the joke “911, I’d like to report a murder.” No one actually thinks that means a real murder occurred, because of how that word is used in the context of Twitter fights. When the president of Princeton says black students are harmed, it’s unlikely he means that black students are denied admission because of their race, or otherwise treated in a way that implicates Title VI.

            1. SHG Post author

              We got your point 10,000 words ago. It was a dull point then and it didn’t get any sharper by your murdering more words and my bandwidth.

  5. szr

    This news gave me a chuckle at first, but after reading the DoE’s letter to Princeton, I’m no longer amused.

    The DoE wants the University to produce an enormous amount go documents and information within 21 calendar days. This discovery includes: all records relating to nondiscrimination representations to any government agency or the public since 2015; all records concerning, relating to, or referencing diversity measures since April 1, 2020; all records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s racism since 2013; and many, many more. The DoE wants everything—including emails, social media posts, text messages, etc.—with only documents covered by atty/client privilege withheld.

    The DoE also wants to depose Princeton’s president and corporate representative.

    The DoE claims that the the “shocking nature of Princeton’s admission” compels the department move forward with haste.

    The DoE’s investigation is insane. It is imposing enormous costs on the University for, at best, investigating an extremely speculative injury. The DoE has tools at its disposal that would be far less costly, such as an audit.

    Finally, the definition of “substantial misrepresentation” in the statute requires that a person relied on the misrepresentation to his or her detriment, or could reasonably be expected to detrimentally rely on the misrepresentation. Princeton’s letter may be stupid, but the DoE does not name a single person who relied on Princeton’s previous diversity statements to his or her detriment, nor how Princeton’s previous diversity statements (even if they were misrepresentations) could reasonably be relied on to a person’s detriment.

    I am no fan of the critical race theory bullshit that Princeton’s president wrote about, but the DoE’s response is even worse. Either: the DoE has now completely changed course on how it responds to alleged misrepresentations (without giving notice of its intention to do so, possibly in violation of the APA); or the DoE is abusing the power of the federal bureaucracy to punish Princeton.

    This is no laughing matter.

  6. El_Suerte

    It’s galling that otherwise respectable pro free speech pundits like Jane Coasten and Ken White argue that this DOE is impermissible speech chilling, while also being gungho for firing gov employees ( especially cops) for sharing racist memes.

    I’m probably too dumb to understand how their positions are consistent.

    1. SHG Post author

      They’re allowed to have their view. It’s not one I share in this instance, for the reasons explained in the post, but that’s the nature of such issues. I fail to see any First Amendment implications in the DoE decision to investigate here. I see a university president who knew the law, made a decision to publicly express that his school was in violation of the law, and should have expected the natural consequences of his decision.

  7. LTMG

    Since Princeton by its own admission is arguably in violation of Federal laws and regulations, it would be interesting to see what the effect would be of withholding all Federal funding from the institution. Watching the heads at Princeton try to extricate themselves from their own words would be entertaining.

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