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It’s no small thing to throw the symbolic weight of Princeton University behind a cause. As such, it’s been deeply encouraging to see President Eisgruber’s recent advocacy on behalf of the trans community and his leadership in the university’s challenge against President Donald Trump’s DACA decision. President Eisgruber’s actions have shown that in some cases, he is willing to put resources and reputation on the line for justice, and that he is an effective advocate when he chooses to do so.

These developments make President Eisgruber’s recent statements on Students for Prison Education and Reform’s (SPEAR) Ban the Box campaign all the more disappointing. After a Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) presentation from several SPEAR members on Monday afternoon, President Eisgruber announced that he, as the final arbiter of whether the University bans the box, was largely opposed.
The Ban the Box campaign at Princeton began in 2012, and asks the University to remove the question regarding an applicant’s criminal record from its application. Now that the Common App itself announced that it would be removing the box from its application altogether, it is an individual university’s decision whether to ask the question on its supplemental applications. President Eisgruber offered two justifications for his inclination against banning the box. Because his reasons represent frequently-offered objections, I want to consider them both in turn.

First, in response to the fact that 50 colleges and universities (including the SUNY and UC systems and the University’s own graduate school) have removed the box entirely, reporting no increase in campus crime, President Eisgruber stated, “We have a process that … looks at values and leadership characteristics generally, that’s a different kind of admission process … from the one that’s used in the graduate school and it’s also different from the one that’s used in many of the schools that you used as reference points.”

In addition to considering positive evidence of leadership and values, Eisgruber explained, “I don’t see a reason to ignore — although there may be times when it’s appropriate to mitigate or take into account countervailing factors — entirely evidence that somebody has engaged in criminal activity.”

We gather from this statement that the University believes “evidence that someone has engaged in criminal activity” is an appropriate indicator of leadership and values. But when we use information from the box, we are not simply measuring who has made the decision to “[engage] in criminal activity.” Instead, we are measuring who has been caught for committing what has been labeled a crime. For example, while people of all races use marijuana at similar rates, New Jersey arrests black people at three times the rate it arrests white people for marijuana possession. So when we use the box, we’re actually measuring who has been most policed, surveilled, and caged.

The idea that we can objectively gauge who has committed a “crime” rests on the assumption that those who are convicted of crimes are the same group as those who have committed crimes. This assumption is, quite simply, dead wrong; researchers at our very own university and elsewhere have continually shown that our very definitions of criminality were shaped around blackness — indeed, the origins of many of our criminal laws quite explicitly criminalized the mere fact of blackness and poverty, both of which are often encountered in tandem.

The box draws information from a prison system that is 40 percent black, 60 percent people of color and composed of people who have an average income 41 percent lower than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. How could such an explicitly racist and classist system be a valid indicator of “values and leadership?”

Again, if those convicted of crimes were placed on a pie chart of all those who have committed crimes, they’d be a relatively small slice. For example, I had friends who were high more often than not, but the police never came for them, and certainly never charged or incarcerated them. No, our private school credentials were enough to protect us from daily policing. Nor did acquaintances who got drunk and committed what we would certainly identify as acts of sexual assault ever get charged; no, my wealthy white communities were content to talk it out, sweep it under the rug, or perhaps — at worst — restrict car privileges for the rest of the week.

Just as importantly, if we truly want to evaluate leadership and values, we should consider the sheer determination and ability to overcome adversity marked by a formerly incarcerated person’s application for university.

President Eisgruber’s second justification for opposing banning the box involves risk: “I do think that there are some kinds of … serious criminal activity that may be related to risks that would occur on campus. And we take those kinds of risks seriously.”

It makes sense to worry about students’ safety. However, as stated, the box is not an accurate metric of who commits crimes. As data from the fifty colleges and universities that have banned the box completely have shown, there was no difference in crimes rates between universities that had and had not banned the box. And if we really want to take harm seriously — such as sexual assault — we can start by targeting the most common sites of sexual assault (eating clubs), toxic drinking culture, and toxic masculinity, not those who have been overpoliced their entire lives. 

President Eisgruber ended by indicating his openness to not remove, but reformulate, the box in such a way that “mitigates some of the determinants and disadvantages that [SPEAR] referred to.” I appreciate President Eisgruber’s willingness to compromise. The problem, however, is that the harm of the box emerges even before one checks it and opens himself or herself up to discrimination by admissions officers. Instead, research shows the presence of the box alone is enough to deter students from applying. In a study of SUNY schools, for each denied applicant who checked the box, 15 other applicants who also checked “yes” failed to complete the application.

By keeping the box - regardless of its form - we communicate our willingness to use racist and classist data in our admissions process. By keeping the box, we send the message that while formerly incarcerated people might deserve an education, they certainly don’t deserve it at our university. And by keeping the box, we indicate our willing complicity as an additional arm of the criminal justice system, contributing to the ongoing punishment of those who have putatively already “served their time.”

The box is a proxy for race and poverty, not criminality. So, as much as we might like to, we can’t re-word our way out of discrimination; we can’t rephrase our way out of reality. One thing is clear: it’s time to ban - not reformulate - the box. 

Micah Herskind is a senior African American Studies major from Buffalo, New York. He is also the president of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR). He can be reached at micahh@princeton.edu. 

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