It’s an expression of profound frustration and sorrow.
It’s a policy proposal from the 1960s, involving redistributing a city’s budget so it has fewer cops and more social services.
It’s a policy demand to be met at once.
It’s a way of locating fellow radicals.
And sometimes it can be taken at face value: a demand to remove all resources and funding from police departments.
Andrew Ferguson: ‘Defund the police’ does not mean defund the police. Unless it does.
This summer, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber stumbled into a similar language game, which he did not win. Three hundred professors had demanded that he “openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive” there and “block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”
You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Eisgruber sent a letter to the Princeton community affirming the ideas the professors had presented. He admitted that “racism and the damage it does to people of color … 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.” Moreover, “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures.”
But no sooner had made his full confession than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stood on the deck of one of her fleet of yachts, lifted the spyglass to her eye, and called out, “Land ho!” Once on terra firma, she grabbed Eisgruber by the short hairs. I didn’t know she had it in her.
The Department of Education wrote that given the university’s confession of racism, it was initiating a federal investigation into the matter. This kind of racism, it said, constituted a violation of the Civil Rights Act, and jeopardized the university’s annual grab of millions in federal dollars, because that money is contingent on Princeton not being a racist institution. It wanted a variety of documents, including the evidence that had led Eisgruber to his shocking confession.
Both Eisgruber and DeVos were playing language games, and they knew it. Eisgruber didn’t mean that kind of racism. He meant, you know, the structural kind of racism (which sounds like the very worst form of it), the systemic kind of racism (ditto). All he had meant to do was stamp the Princeton paperwork with the newest language, the way that universities are falling over themselves to confess that they are on unjustly seized Native land—without actually doing anything to return that land to its original owners.
DeVos didn’t believe he was admitting to racism. She understood that Princeton’s confession was meant to garner praise with the smart set, to be seen as evolved, honest, nonfragile. But she made her point and—no doubt this was her intention—infuriated the left in the process.