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Classics chair calls professor’s language on BJL ‘absolutely abhorrent,’ as Katz defends ‘blunt speech’

<h6>Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In a public message to the community on Monday, faculty administrators of the Department of Classics condemned Professor Joshua Katz’s recent description of the Black Justice League (BJL) as a “terrorist organization,” calling Katz’s language “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.”

“Last week our colleague Joshua Katz, identifying himself as a professor of classics at Princeton, published a public essay attacking an open letter recommending a series of specific anti-racist actions,” Department Chair Michael Flower, Director of Graduate Studies Brooke Holmes GS ’05, Director of Undergraduate Studies Joshua Billings, and chair of the department’s Equity and Inclusion Committee Andrew Feldherr ’85 wrote. “The author does not speak for the Department. The views expressed are his and his alone.”

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On July 8, Katz published a column, entitled “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” in the online magazine Quillette. In the piece, he criticized a faculty open letter that called on the University to take anti-racist action. Katz wrote that the letter includes “dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.”

Katz also condemned the BJL, a now-disbanded Black student activist group that advocated for numerous anti-racist actions on campus. The BJL is best known for its 2015 protest, which culminated in a 32-hour sit-in of Nassau Hall. 

Katz defended his column in response to the department’s statement.

“While I obviously disagree with my colleagues’ characterization of my essay, I respect their right to express their opinion,” Katz said in an email. “I ask only that they respect my right to express mine as well.”

The department’s statement comes one day after President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 denounced Katz’s language in an exclusive statement to The Daily Princetonian — a position echoed by many professors, alumni, and students.

In an earlier 800-word statement to the ‘Prince’ on Sunday, Katz had defended the language in his column. 

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“While I maintain unequivocally that my right to say what I said is not dependent on providing such clarification, I also believe deeply in the power of open, constructive disagreement and dialogue and wish thus to explain myself in greater detail,” Katz wrote.

The full text of Katz’s statement, entitled “When Blunt Speech is Called For,” may be found here

Katz is a former ‘Prince’ faculty columnist and former trustee of the paper.

Flower said in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that he found Katz’s “characterization of the Black Justice League to be absolutely abhorrent and factually untrue.”

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“I myself have never heard him make a racist remark, and so I just could not believe it,” Flower said, noting he had known Katz for 20 years. “When I read the article, I just, what just happened? Why did he write this? What could possibly have motivated him?”

In his column, Katz wrote, “The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” 

He described a recent Instagram Live video hosted by a BJL alum as “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed,” comparing it to a Maoist “Struggle Session” and writing that its participants were “baying for blood.” 

The host of the Instagram Live video previously declined to comment and did not respond to a further request seeking comment on Katz’s statement. The ‘Prince’ has not identified them out of respect for their privacy.

In its message to the campus community, the classics department condemned Katz’s language, writing that its use “in the context of vilifying a Black student activist group” draws upon “a long history of language used in this country to incite racial and specifically anti-Black violence.” 

“The use of such language is abhorrent at this moment of national reckoning with the continuing legacy of systemic racism and violence, and it has heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk,” the statement read. 

In his statement on Sunday, Katz invoked his background as a linguist to defend his use of the phrase “terrorist organization.”

“Was the BJL literally a terrorist organization?” Katz wrote. “By the FBI’s standards, no, because its members never engaged in physical violence. And yet their use of fear tactics to intimidate fellow students who attempted to debate them in good faith merits, in my view, the metaphorical designation.”

For Nicolette D’Angelo ’19, an alumna of the department, however, Katz’s academic discipline informed her criticism of his column. 

“Katz is a linguist — he knows what he’s doing with words,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “He knows that by calling Black students and alumni ‘terrorists,’ ‘baying for blood’ that he’s using racially-coded language — racially-coded in the same way that Donald Trump using ‘thugs’ is.”

As an example of such “terrorizing,” Katz explained in his statement that members of the BJL had maligned a Black Princeton student, who they allegedly criticized for “‘performing white supremacy.’’’ 

The ‘Prince’ could not independently verify this claim. 

Katz further said in his statement that the BJL had baselessly accused students, faculty, and administrators of racism and white supremacy, describing such actions as “intimidation.”

Katz also wrote that on social media, including during the Instagram Live event, “alumni members of the BJL repeatedly called on some of their former classmates to lose their jobs for purported acts of protected speech and for thinking thoughts that do not align with [theirs].” 

The ‘Prince’ has not been able to obtain a copy of the video, and the original is no longer available online.

Several individuals who watched the video described it as featuring an informal group of BJL alumni discussing an allegation that a former classmate had made a racist comment. That former classmate at one point joined the Instagram Live session.

In his statement, Katz said that the former classmate’s “persistent apologies and attempts to abase himself were not enough, and the BJL alum and viewers repeatedly told him so, suggesting that he needed a lawyer.”

“They were not content until he had been thoroughly humiliated,” Katz added. “I stand by my description of the event as evil.”

The student Katz identified did not respond to a request for comment. He is not being identified out of respect for his privacy.

One student who watched the video disputed Katz’s characterization of what happened. Specifically, the student said they “didn’t hear anything” threatening the former classmate’s employment and that “it definitely wasn’t a major thing, if mentioned at all.” When asked whether participants had told the former classmate that he needed a lawyer, the student said, “No, not at all.”  

The student cautioned, however, that due to the volume of comments made by users watching the live video, they did not view every statement made during the video.

The student declined to be publicly identified, given the controversial nature of the video. 

“This is not terrorism, this is accountability,” said Josiah Gouker ’22, who saw a partial clip of the video after the live session and has been vocal on social media in condemning Katz’s column. “This isn’t about ‘thinking thoughts that are different from other people,’ it’s about actions that actively perpetuate the marginalization of other people.”

In a tweet on Monday, Judith Weisenfeld GS ’92, Chair of the Department of Religion, framed Katz’s description of the video within the context of recent events that have roiled the nation. 

“I keep thinking about how, not two months after Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 48 seconds and killed him, Princeton faculty member Joshua Katz wrote that seeing a Black Princetonian call out racism was one of the most evil things he had ever seen,” she wrote.


Nadirah Farah Foley ’11, a Black alumna of the classics department and a doctoral student at Harvard, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“Describing students — presumably mostly Black ones — as ‘baying for blood’ isn’t so much a dog-whistle as a bullhorn, given the long history in this country of portraying Black people as animalistic or sub-human,” Foley previously told the ‘Prince.’ 

Billings, one of the four signatories to the classics department statement, sent the statement to all current classics concentrators on Monday.

“I also want to make absolutely and unambiguously clear that we as a Department are committed to working towards a more just and equitable future for all,” Billings said in the email, adding that he invites students’ “responses and suggestions.”

Avner Goldstein ’21, classics concentrator, said he found Katz’s column “very discouraging” and expressed appreciation for the department’s message.

“It’s important to hear this as an undergraduate, especially for prospective students who need to know that the department will be an academic home for them,” Goldstein said.

Flower told the ‘Prince’ that making the department a “home for students of color where they feel safe and appreciated” is vital. In addressing the historically white discipline’s lack of diversity, Flower felt his department has “made tremendous headway.”

“And then, like a bolt out of the blue — this happens,” he said.

As an example of strides the department has made toward inclusive policies, Flower pointed to the “pre-doctoral fellowship” established in 2018 by Flower and Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, one of the framers of the faculty open letter on anti-racist action. The fellowship offers a year of post-baccalaureate study to “members of groups that have been historically and are presently underrepresented in the academy,” along with a guarantee of admission to the University’s Ph.D. program upon completion. 

Padilla Peralta — once a student of Katz’s — previously told the ‘Prince’ that the column’s “flagrant racism makes our case for us.” 

“I find it very disappointing that a professor of Classics, someone who no doubt has knowledge of over 2,000 years of history, nevertheless chooses to be on the wrong side of it,” Andrew White ’22, a classics concentrator, wrote to the ‘Prince’.

Alongside the statement regarding Katz’s column, the department also posted a statement on “Equity” to its website on Monday. The statement enumerated several goals the department will “continue to advance” moving forward, including an objective “to articulate a clear, forward-looking, and inclusive vision for our field.”

The department also emphasized that it must protect students and faculty from discrimination and create opportunities for students and future colleagues from backgrounds historically underrepresented within the discipline.

D’Angelo, the recent alumna of the classics department, stressed the need to address racial inequity within classical studies head-on.

“People act surprised that Princeton Classics, as with Classics as a discipline, is overwhelmingly white,” she told the ‘Prince’ in an interview on Saturday, “which is just the performance of deliberate obtuseness in the face of the impact of words like those Katz decided to use.”

White articulated a unique responsibility he feels students like him must bear. 

“It is our duty as Classicists, students who for centuries were exclusively wealthy white men, to acknowledge that past and work for a better future,” White said.

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