Those words arguably met the faculty letter’s demand to publicly acknowledge anti-Black racism at Princeton. But the same language was then cited by the Trump administration as justification for a Department of Education probe into whether the university has violated federal law.
Read: The cost of balancing racism and academia
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declares that at institutions that receive federal funds, no person shall be subject to discrimination or denied the benefits of any activity on the basis of race.
Princeton administrators have long affirmed that their institution is complying with those requirements. Given Eisgruber’s claims that racism persists at Princeton, that racist assumptions are embedded in its structures, and that systemic racism there damages the lives of Black people, the Department of Education says it wants to know if the university has been lying.
The government’s letter concludes with intrusive demands to interview Princeton employees under oath and generate sensitive documents, including a list of each Princetonian who has been discriminated against on the basis of race since 2015, as well as records related to Eisgruber’s claims about “systemic” or “embedded” racism.
The investigation is absurd. Princeton is highly sought after by Black applicants. In admissions it uses the race of minority applicants, who are admitted at higher rates, as a “plus” to achieve greater diversity in a way that very likely benefits Black applicants. It spends lavishly on “inclusion” efforts, holds events to celebrate (and name a building after) Black alumni, and dedicates resources to recruiting and hiring Black faculty and staff. No reasonable person deciding where federal officials should look for anti-Black civil-rights violations would probe the Ivy League University. But trolls waging a culture war against critical race theory might.
As far as I can tell, the strategy is to force Princeton to either admit to serious anti-Black discrimination, risking devastating financial penalties, or else mount an affirmative case that the institution is not guilty of “systemic” anti-Black discrimination, exposing the racism claims of many administrators, faculty, and students as hyperbole. In its absurdity, then, the probe exposes the performative nature of some anti-racist rhetoric at Princeton and other elite universities.
Defenders of the investigation see it that way too. In City Journal, Seth Barron characterized it as a maneuver that could neutralize the 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,” he wrote. “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.”