“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness…. [O]ne ever feels his twoness — an American, a [Black person]; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” — W.E.B. Du Bois

After campus was roiled by student protests in 2015, the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton found that “what is needed is nothing less than a change in campus climate that elevates Princeton’s commitment to diversity and inclusion to a higher priority.” Yet little has changed for graduate students at the school whose name was the center of those protests — the Wilson School. Longstanding grievances of marginalized students remain unaddressed and the curriculum has gaping holes.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard a classmate reflect on the huge privilege it is to be a graduate student at the Wilson School. I know there are people for whom enrolling here indeed imbues a sense of pride in joining the ranks of famous, powerful, and historically important alumni.

But I can’t feel that way. For me, being an Master in Public Affairs student at the Wilson School imbues a profound sense of absence. Absence of the perspectives, lives, and scholarship of people of color.

When I scan the syllabi for my courses, I do not see the perspective of marginalized people represented in our foundational coursework. If people of color are acknowledged at all, it is often as an afterthought. When the differential impact of policies on people of color and white people are raised by a student, my fellow classmates of color and I have come to expect a superficial analysis of why these differences exist.

In one core class, we explored police brutality in America without ever referencing race, even though police killings of Black people have dominated national media since 2014. In another, the topic of our singular discussion on race was how white U.S. residents feel about immigration. In a third, we study economic outcomes deemed “socially optimal” with only lip service paid to the fact that these outcomes can exacerbate social inequalities. Perhaps the Wilson School is aptly named to honor Wilson’s legacy after all, because Black people don’t seem to exist inside Robertson Hall.

How can it be a privilege to learn in a place where people who look like me — a Black woman — primarily exist in theory, in hypothetical, in counterfactual?

Being here is not a privilege for me, but a daily act of resistance.

It is insisting that my group policy memo on how to reduce incidents of police brutality acknowledge race even if the only readings we are allowed to use do not. It is writing papers that recognize the legitimacy of the political behavior of low-income U.S. residents even when the authors of the assigned reading are baffled by it. It is knowing these moments might not happen at all if I were not here.

While I have not heard mention of racial, socioeconomic, religious, or sexual orientation diversity as a priority at the Wilson School, I have certainly heard people emphasize intellectual diversity. At a place like the Wilson School, this means more conservative voices.

But other members of underrepresented groups and I don’t need a reminder that policies of exclusion and marginalization have come from liberal spaces as often as they’ve come from conservative ones. Wilson, the progressive Democrat, re-segregated the federal civil service and screened the film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. The Clinton administration supported some of the legislation that led to our current era of mass incarceration of people of color.

Intellectual diversity has never been enough to keep Black people safe in the United States. And that kind of diversity, alone, is not enough for the Wilson School. 

Only an institution with its roots in white supremacy would need a special task force to tell it that “negative experiences on campus are disproportionately borne by individuals with minority identities: people of color, women, LGBTQA people, members of religious minority groups, low-income and first generation students, people with disabilities, and others. This is fundamentally unfair and inequitable.” Yes. We know. We’ve known.

As a student here, what I do more than anything else is push back against frameworks that co-opt my ability to work towards a better world, frameworks that have historically oppressed, rather than liberated, the communities from which I come.

That is why I am involved with graduate student efforts to bring institutional change to the Wilson School. The changes we are pushing for are in line with the Council of the Princeton University Committee’s recommendations for additional administrative leadership to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in terms of administrative support and resources for marginalized students, a curriculum that acknowledges the diversity of the world, and faculty who reflect that diversity in person and in their academic interests.

When Beverly Tatum, a former college president herself, spoke on campus this semester, she encouraged students seeking progress around diversity and inclusion to remain persistent. She reminded us that institutions of higher education often do not evolve voluntarily. I am encouraged by the number of my peers willing to persist in making the Wilson School a better place to learn.

I do not doubt that the graduate students of the Wilson School will one day hold some of the most powerful and impactful roles in the policy field. But what will that impact be? Will we be the kind of policymakers who narrow gaps in equity or who contribute to the widening of those gaps? Will we be the kind of policymakers who commission study after study, task forces and committees to convince us over and over that we must change, or will we be prepared to act? As a policy school, I believe the Wilson School has an ethical responsibility to ask itself these questions and to care about the answers.

If the MPA curriculum is meant to teach us how to navigate political systems in order to bring about necessary policy change, then consider the Wilson School my first case study.

Kayla Vinson, kvinson@princeton.edu

Master in Public Affairs Candidate, Princeton University, 2019

J.D. Candidate, NYU School of Law Public Interest Fellow, 2019

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