Calling Princeton’s “Anti-Racist” Bluff

Last Thursday, the Department of Education (DoE) sent a letter to Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber to inform him that the University will be under investigation for possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifteen days prior, Eisgruber had released a letter to the University community stating, among other fashionably self-deprecatory things, that, “Racist assumptions from the past… remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” Eisgruber also reiterated how he had charged his cabinet back in June with “develop[ing] plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.” But Eisgruber’s confession of “systemic racism” at Princeton is not, he stresses, racism actually intended by current actors. It’s part of the “system,” baked into how it operates. Calling it out does not mean that Eisgruber or really anyone else should be judged guilty for racism. The DeVos DoE, however, apparently doesn’t understand that systemic racism accusations are typically an elite institutional tool to both convict and remove yourself from guilt. They instead took Eisgruber and Princeton at their word.

Faced with such remarkable declarations and bureaucratic motions from the head of one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, the DoE had no choice but to act on the investigative trolling opportunity of a lifetime. Institutional racism, even as it becomes something expected of people in positions of power to confess with ritual solemnity, remains the crime it has been for the past half-century, and now the federal government will go searching for evidence of that crime at Princeton. The lesson? There is a price to be paid when leaders lie. 

We begin with a few obvious, if unpopular, truths. Unlike in the past, here in 2020, Princeton as an institution does not have a racism problem, “systemic” or otherwise—not, at least, on any conventional or reasonable understanding of the concept of racism. How do we know? As recent graduates from the University, we’ve lived, worked, studied, and socialized in Princeton for much of the past four years. We know the place (it’s a great small town), and we have interacted with many of the key players, including on multiple occasions President Eisgruber. And yet for all of the many faults we have discovered within the University, we must insist that anti-black racism is simply not one of them. Not at all. 

Princeton is rather in many ways an example of a thriving, inclusive, and diverse intellectual community—made up of bright, genuinely curious students and professors from many different walks of life and worldviews—working toward the shared goal of a better world, in line with the University’s unofficial motto of “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Much of Princeton remains, however, caught up in the abject moral panic over systemic anti-black racism that is plaguing our society, sending well-intentioned progressives turning over every ivy-covered stone in the fervent hopes of uncovering racists and other latter-day-witches for prompt and public identification, “education,” or cancellation.

As cultural observers and Princeton graduates committed to seeking the truth, we have a duty to speak plainly about what’s going on here. President Eisgruber has capitulated to the groundless demands of a perhaps well intentioned but ultimately deluded segment of his constituency and of our society. Modern-day, third-wave antiracism, according to John McWhorter, is nothing short of a fideistic religious movement born of an ideological conviction in the presence of significant numbers of problematic racists—and racist structures and disparities sustained by the complicit—in all corners of society, including elite academe. With this and other articles of injustice taken on faith or under duress, concerned students, administrators, and faculty demand that the war against the racists continue. But Betsy DeVos’ DoE has taken Princeton’s admission of racist guilt on its own terms, so by the very logic of its self-indictment Princeton could now face legal consequences. On this front, we absolutely concur with the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal: “It will be fascinating to watch how Princeton squares its admission of systemic racism with its vow that it doesn’t discriminate.”

In facing his woke critics, President Eisgruber chose the easy lie, and now his institution will suffer the consequences. 

We should like to point out, however, that internal and left-cultural pressures will make it difficult for the University to walk back this latter claim. Will Princeton be able to thread the needle, as Jonah Goldberg observed, and say on racism: “take us seriously but not literally”? Princeton is swept up in, and in an ersatz return to its ministerial roots has served as something of an educational hub for, the Great Awokening. On July Fourth of this year, for example, several hundred Princeton professors and graduate students signed an open letter asserting that “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America” and calling for (among many, many other things) the prompt establishment of an anti-racist commission to “oversee” (read: ideologically censor) scholarly research at Princeton. While it later came to light that some of the signatories actually did not support some of the letter’s most anti-liberal and speech-chilling provisions, the episode nonetheless revealed which ideological interests hold the real agenda-setting power on campus, and who feels beholden to signing what. This helps to explain why President Eisgruber would adopt similar, albeit relatively toned-down (if still absolutely mistaken), “anti-racist” language in his own subsequent remarks to the University community, including his letter of September 2nd.

President Eisgruber is in an unfortunate, yet altogether understandable executive bind. Anti-racist activist types are now a significant, and vocal, constituency within the University community. But based on the little we know of President Eisgruber personally, we suspect that his private views on these matters are likely much more nuanced and much less fervent than those of the clamoring “anti-racist” voices he is forced to respond to. We understand that President Eisgruber has an obligation, as the head of the University, to engage with this particular constituency and to try to allay some of their concerns. Is it unthinkable for Eisgruber to convene authentic discussions with concerned groups about the merits and facts of systemic racism as it regards the operations of Princeton University? 

Rather than defend the real merits of the institution which he heads, President Eisgruber has chosen to drift with the prevailing winds of unfriendly, uncharitable, and unreasonable criticism. He has with his actions and words bought into—by failing to challenge—the ridiculous premise that Princeton is in any significant way contributing to or responsible for the injustices, unrest, and frustrations surrounding the issue of race that still plague our nation. In facing his woke critics, President Eisgruber chose the easy lie, and now his institution will suffer the consequences. 

How will this end? First of all, we should note that when we report that Princeton doesn’t have a racism problem, we do have one caveat in mind. President Eisgruber’s public hand-wringing was obviously meant to speak to concerns, irrationally endemic within the University community, that the University in systemic fashion engages in anti-black racism and adverse discrimination against people of color. Based on our experiences living, studying, and otherwise existing within Princeton over the past four years, we expect that very little of this will be found. What the DoE might well find, however, and what they might truly be searching for, would be real discrimination on the basis of race, but of an altogether different sort. See the current federal civil rights cases regarding admissions practices at Harvard and Yale, over allegations of bias against Asian-American applicants.

This episode has broader cultural and political implications as well. President Eisgruber’s wish to avoid conflict with constituents to his left has made this yet another missed opportunity to advance productive dialogue concerning issues of race. The anti-racist rhetoric we’ve seen splashing across op-ed pages, Twitter feeds, and streetscapes this past summer has many excesses, and is desperately in need of a strong dose of reality and good-faith grappling with criticism. By engaging with his institution’s influential and vocal anti-racist bloc rather than kowtowing to them, President Eisgruber could have provided that faction—and our national discourse—with a strong dose of the medicine they so badly need. A real reckoning with truth about race would entail factual nuance and debate—not relentless dogma. 

President Eisgruber could have brought this medicine home, and thereby contributed to a genuine racial and political healing grounded in dialogue—something beyond the elite navel-gazing and mass uprising which have dominated the past few months. Such dialogue would focus less on elite-level insecurities and more on the most substantial barrier to legitimate racial equity in the United States of America today: the persistence of intergenerational black poverty. This “reckoning” would entail earnest, facts-based discussion and action geared towards reforming our criminal justice system, supporting flourishing black families and communities, and connecting black Americans with better vocational and educational opportunities (which would likely entail crushing the undue influence of teachers’ unions and public sector bureaucracy). 

The way forward for a veritable and equitable reckoning about race would be defined by a commitment to facts, pragmatism in policymaking, and adherence to fundamental principles such as the inherent dignity and capability of the individual, regardless of his or her skin color. It will not be marked by the sort of rote and misleading self-condemnation which President Eisgruber put on display in his letter and for which he is being rightly chastised

Institutions like Princeton, which ostensibly are committed to truth-seeking and the production of useful knowledge, are well positioned to play a crucial role in the racial reconciliation we actually need—which, unfortunately, is not the one we’re getting. We can only hope that after a lawfare induced wake-up call, Princeton and its peer institutions will stop their feigned self-flagellation and live up to their potential to facilitate truthful, helpful, and productive conversations about race in America. 

Reader Discussion

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on September 22, 2020 at 07:40:54 am

I fervently hope for the most severe penalties for Eisgruber and for Princeton. They are complicit in the left’s campaign to destroy America and Western Civilization, and whatever the most severe penalties are, they are insufficient. Cultural Marxism must be crushed, lest it crush civilization.

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Charles N. Steele
on September 22, 2020 at 10:18:44 am

Excellent article.
One correction, though. You write, "the DoE had no choice but to act on the investigative trolling opportunity of a lifetime."
The DoE clearly did have a choice. I think it made the right choice, but it was a choice.

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Henderson David
on September 22, 2020 at 10:32:37 am

"Is it unthinkable for Eisgruber to convene authentic discussions with concerned groups about the merits and facts of systemic racism as it regards the operations of Princeton University? "

It may not be "unthinkable" but it is highly doubtful and given the apparent predisposition to "knuckle under" it is also highly unlikely that such a discussion would be fruitful.

The essayist is correct in recognizing the fideistic epistemology operative amongst the Wokesters.
Curiously enough, just finished a reading on the Reformation and the fideistic basis for much of that period. Here is what Richard Hooker had to say in response to the "unshakeable" convictions of the Puritans and other Reformation sects:
According to Hooker, the Puritans and other followers of the Reformation, had disgraced the place of "Reason". Direct Revelation was their sole source of authority.

"Let any man of contrary opinion open his mouth to persuade them, they close up their ears, his reasons they weight not, all is answered with the rehearsal of the words of John: "We are of God, he that knoweth God heareth us, as for the rest ye are of the world..."

What difference is there between 16th - 17th century religious ideologues and todays' "woke" ideologues? Both have discerned divine light, know it and let all the world hear of their unique discernment. That which has been discerned by them must not be questioned; to do so implicates the others virtue and humanity.

Another parallel between the 16th century ideologues and todays wokesters is that they, unknowingly it would seem, are "voluntarists", i.e., that it is will and not reason that insures or initiates change. Whether it be will as the basis for Law, as in the 16th century AND following Reformation political and theological precepts, or "Feelings" (a precursor to will and similarly destructive of Reason) as in todays' polity, the possibility of reasoned dialectics is diminished or destroyed. It is replaced by "certainty", an epistemological state that is not dissimilar to the state of "divine revelation" claimed by the Puritans and other Post-Reformation sects.

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Image of gabe
on September 23, 2020 at 01:39:18 am

...it is also highly unlikely that such a discussion would be fruitful.

This is probably true, and the reason for this can be found in the essential feature of anti-racism: it is not a doctrine that is advocated in good faith. Even the word "bluff" used in the title to the above essay recognizes this point.

The premise of Ms. FitzGerald's and Mr. Koenig's essay is that the substance of Mr. Eisgruber's confession does not match its purpose. The hand-wringing mentioned by the authors is a facade; it is not so much a public acknowledgement of a grave moral struggle as much as a cover for cynical politics.

The allegation that anti-racism is not a good faith movement, helps explain much of the cultural paralysis afflicting one institution after another. The lack of good faith creates an asymmetrical contest that proceeds in a tangle of contradictions. When established culture asserts that the plight of minorities should be improved, but that we should also retain the wisdom and progress of centuries of Western civilization, its adversaries deny that we should retain any such. When the established institutions assume that minorities and the majority population should treat each other as they themselves would like to be treated, its adversaries refuse to acknowledge that any such reciprocity will be given or should be expected. When the dominant culture assumes that considerations of "equity" should be pursued with fairness to all concerned, its adversaries refuse to recognize such a concept.

Because "anti-racist conversations" do not proceed in good faith, it is not fruitful to point out to those such as President Eisengruber that he seems to be mistaken, that beating a black man for dating a white woman is different, not only as a matter of degree but also of kind, than using the Chinese word "nega" in a classroom, or complimenting a black employee for being hardworking. Anti-racism is not just a bad faith doctrine, it is a deliberate con. Its goals are not to stamp out "anti-blackness," whatever that is, or purge non-blacks of latent and invidious prejudices. It has instead rather transparent goals of promoting a set of social constraints, e.g limits on speech, thought, opportunity and association that benefit a small group of ambitious, but cynical grifters. These benefits are the malignant opportunities provided to the unscrupulous by a bleak and contemptuous world-view.

This does give people of good faith an opportunity though. Truth will eventually win out. It is not necessary to deny the arguments of the 'woke" so much as to inject truth into them, such as:

"If you do not support black families, you aren't anti-racist."

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Image of z9z99
on September 30, 2020 at 15:39:55 pm

What difference is there between 16th - 17th century religious ideologues and todays' "woke" ideologues?

The difference is that the Independent puritans’ objectives in England in the mid-17th Century were the separation of church and state, a written constitution, sovereignty of the governed, representative government and the supremacy of Parliament. The Wokesters want a totalitarian government based on racial preferences.

I don’t think there is any worthwhile comparison to be made between the two.

N.B. The puritan Independents settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony. If you look beyond their pietist religion you’ll find Madison’s Bill of Rights.

You aught to do more reading.

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Image of EK
on September 22, 2020 at 12:37:26 pm

Great article. Any discussion of institutional racism at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Duke etc. etc. should include the facts about how admissions standards are applied to various groups and about the distribution of university financial aid. If these data show discrimination, then the campus and DOJ should seek a remedy.

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George La Noue
on September 22, 2020 at 13:14:53 pm

Great article. If Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Duke etc.,etc. claim they are still responsible for current discrimination occurring on their campuses, they should be required to produce data on how their admission standards and the distributions of institutional financial aid affect various groups. If these data or other specific instances of racism can be identified, the problems should be remedied by the campus or DOE. If there is nothing found, virtue signaling does not help in our polarized political climate.

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George La Noue
on September 22, 2020 at 13:39:57 pm

Is there a willingness for true dialogue, or will we be at the other end of a monologue-lecture mode when "discussions" occur?

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Image of JR
on September 24, 2020 at 06:25:12 am

it is unthinkable, because the "anti-racist activists" within his community do not want "dialogue." they want blood, immediately and without regard to any fact. it is in these weeds that the left's supposed interest in fact, whether race-relations or covid-19, is found so laughable. they want political outcome, now, and only.

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Image of Sub
on September 25, 2020 at 21:40:06 pm

About time one of these self righteous, race-baiting institutions, and their complicit administrations, paid the price for their douchebaggery. Bring it on, Mrs. DeVoe!

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Image of William
on September 24, 2020 at 07:26:39 am

Ha, for a second there I almost thought you were going to include a certain completely supported and viable, yet absolutely taboo, contributing factor for black's generational poverty.
I wonder what it will take for that piece of deeply explanatory truth to be factored into the discussion.

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Image of Judie
on September 25, 2020 at 14:35:06 pm

Eisgruber is a fool, his foolishness is damaging to the university, and he should resign.

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James Fair
on September 30, 2020 at 19:56:20 pm

The authors say "systemic anti-black racism that is plaguing our society" must be dealt with. The idea that anti black racism is a plague is garbage. They and all who believe that are pushing an anti White, anti American agenda at the peril of Constitutional rights and values. Anti racism is nothi9ng but reverse racism. A pox on all who participate in such vile conduct.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.