Friday, September 18, 2020

Princeton Plays with the Bull and Gets the Horns

UPDATE: Some people think Eisgruber was not confessing to racism at Princeton, but instead that Princeton would use its considerable resources to fight external racism and trying to rectify the external effects of racism on its own members.

 On Sep. 2, Princeton's President Eisgruber claimed that the university suffers from pervasive systemic racism. It's possible the letter was sincere. Given what we know about political psychology (see e.g. here and here) and university administration, the most scientifically plausible theory here is that the president was partly motivated by anti-racist sentiment, but mostly motivated by thinking this would be a good PR posturing that would help Princeton's standing and also help secure various economic rents for interested parties. It'd be surprising and unusual if anti-racism were the main motive.

In a delightful twist, though, the Department of Education is now investigating Princeton for violations of the Civil Rights Act.  Since Princeton receives significant federal funding, it is bound by a wide range of regulations which require it to create and maintain an inclusive, discrimination-free environment. But by the president's own admission, it has not only failed to do so in the past, but continues to fail today.

Some are outraged and claim the Department of Education is trolling them. And, frankly, I doubt that the senior leadership at the Department of Education are more anti-racist in their hearts, and certainly less willing to posture as anti-racist in their actions, than Princeton's senior leadership.

Still, here's the thing. If what Eisgruber said is true, then Princeton should be investigated and punished. If the university does continue to suffer from pervasive systemic racism which result in discriminatory practices, then the university does indeed violate the Civil Rights Act and other related regulations. It's a bit weird to confess to something like a crime and expect only nice things to happen to you as a result.

Alternatively, and this is what I suspect is more likely, Princeton is one of the least racist mixed-race places in the United States, and the president knows that. His Sep. 2 letter was largely insincere and was mostly about PR posturing. Just as in the Middle Ages, one could gain status among the faithful by engaging in self-flagellation and publicly declaring oneself a sinner, so in today's environment, white people can gain status and prestige by declaring themselves racist and engaging in activities akin to self-flagellation. 

The problem, though, is that inadvertently, Eisgruber was making light of racism. By analogy, if you see a single hate crime and say, "This is just like the Holocaust!," you aren't thereby displaying your radical moral purity, but rather failing to understand just how bad the Holocaust was.

The situation here is similar to what happened recently at Georgetown, when our president DeGioia sent a letter around which more or less said that the campus is a horrible rape factory, with at least 1/3rd of female students facing sexual assault while here. If what he were saying were true, then his proposed solutions were so mild that it would almost be as if he were making fun of the situation. Instead, the proper thing would be to fire all the senior leadership for enabling this, bring criminal charges against the relevant people, and then to engage in radical reform, including, most  obviously, shutting down the entire university until we can determine how to solve the problem. 

Again, if Princeton is systemically racist, then they should be investigated and punished. Their senior leadership should be fired. If they are not racist, then they shouldn't say they are. If they say they are racist but are not, then what they end up doing is misallocating the limited budget of time, effort, money, and attention people have for fighting racism. If the attic is infested with mice but you convince people to put traps in the almost perfectly clean basement, you thereby help perpetuate the mouse problem. 

One of my Facebook friends, another academic, made a good comment about this. Princeton should be glad that they are being investigated by a Department of Education which does not share their expansive conception of racism. If the senior leadership were true believers in the expansive conception which pervades critical theory and various humanities departments today, they'd be in big trouble. 

UPDATE 2: Some bits from the president:

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. 

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

...I charged my Cabinet in June to develop plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.  

We must ask how Princeton can address systemic racism in the world, and we must also ask how to address it within our own community

Sounds to me like he's saying Princeton engages in racist behavior.