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Open Letter to the Open Campus Coalition

By now, the dust has already cleared on the widespread backlash against the Black Justice League’s (BJL) sit-in. Now that it’s been a few weeks since the protest, I imagine Yik Yak has probably gone back to poop talk.

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At the time, the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) capitalized on this backlash, forming quickly in reaction against the protest and the BJL’s demands and dedicating itself to “protecting diversity of thought and the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation.” But while the worst of the anti-BJL storm may be over, it seems that the POCC is here to stay. Given that the POCC met with University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 just last week, it’s worth rebutting the organization’s claims about the BJL’s protest and demands as potential threats to academic freedom at Princeton.

The POCC’s opposition to the BJL consists both of more specific disagreements with the BJL’s demands and the more general claim that the tone of the BJL and its supporters during and after the protest has intimidated students and has obstructed constructive dialogue on matters of race. The POCC’s tenuous arguments against the BJL’s demands are worthy of critique (see, for example, Joshua Leifer’s takedown of the case against a new distribution requirement on the history of marginalized peoples). However, the POCC’s claims that students are being “intimidated or bullied into silence” are particularly egregious.

These claims are ironic given that one member, Evan Draim ’16, actually admitted in an interview that the group intended to “give a voice to the silent majority.” This comment leads one to wonder how a small group of students is able to exert enough social pressure to silence a “majority” of the student body. According to the POCC, this social pressure consists largely of accusations of racism leveled by BJL members and sympathizers against critics.

I have heard about a couple of troubling experiences from black students who have told me about feeling uncomfortable or even unsafe voicing their issues with the BJL around friends who protested. Despite these isolated instances, however, the POCC’s platform inevitably serves mainly to police the tone of a small group of black students personally affected by structural anti-black racism and prioritize the comfort of non-black students who are afraid of being called the “R-word.”

Considering the way the POCC has characterized the BJL’s protest as threatening to constructive dialogue on race, it’s interesting to reflect on the degree to which this protest has sparked conversation throughout the campus community. Just through personal interactions, I noticed that for a brief time, race became a topic of discussion for students who were normally reluctant to comment on issues of race on campus at all.

However, I have to agree with the POCC’s suggestion that the sit-in has generated, for the most part, largely negative dialogue within the larger University community — but for entirely different reasons. The negative, unconstructive dialogue that emerged after the protest was dominated not by sympathizers for the BJL but by its opponents.

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This kind of dialogue ranged from a run of dismissive and condescending op-eds from alumni and students, to hateful Yik Yak posts, to oblivious comments like a POCC member’s statement that “I have yet to hear a specific anecdote when Princeton as a [current] institution has acted in a racist manner.” (Just through talking to students of color, these anecdotes aren’t hard to find, but Brittney Winters’ ’09 experience of being repeatedly harassed by Public Safety is just one.)

Even the creators of a survey who purportedly aimed to “make statements of fact based on the data” without pushing “any biased opinions” presented the results in implicitly anti-BJL terms. Rather than directly quoting the BJL’s three demands, Daniel Wilson ’18 and Joshua Tam ’18 paraphrased the demands in loaded language: they characterize the BJL’s emphasis for renaming as a “purge” and place the term cultural competency in quotations.

Although the BJL does not (and does not claim to) represent the entire black community on campus, the immediate backlash against their protest is indicative of a pattern among our student body, administration and group of alumni, which are largely unresponsive to the concerns of black students. This University community as a whole, and not the BJL itself, is responsible for the failure of our community to address issues of race and racism in a meaningful way.

Max Grear is a sophomore from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at mgrear@princeton.edu.

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