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Our move: let’s take the faculty letter forward

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

One month ago, President Eisgruber ’83 circulated a message to the University community calling on all of us “reflect on our place in the world and challenge ourselves to identify additional steps we can take to fight racism.” Recognizing the massive, ongoing protests for racial justice in the US, the message firmly committed Princeton to our nation’s urgent, overdue reckoning with its racist history and “the ongoing reality of oppression and violence against Black Americans.” 

Less than two weeks later, an open letter detailing almost fifty ways that the University can “take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus” was delivered with over 350 signatures from faculty and staff to the Princeton administration. 

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I’m a signatory to the faculty letter. I signed because I don’t think we can wait a minute more to start taking these steps. I signed because it’s critical at this moment, and going forward, to listen to Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous colleagues, students, and alums. I signed it as a member of Princeton’s faculty appointed in the Department of Classics, a field that, as a statement issued last month by the Society for Classical Studies acknowledged, has long been complicit in “constructing and participating in racist and anti-Black educational structures and attitudes.” I signed because it’s past time to stop pretending things are okay around here.

And where are we at two weeks later? Most of the attention has been focused on Professor Joshua Katz’s intervention in the conversation in Quillette for its racialized vilification of the Black Justice League. Last week Princeton alum Nicholas Bellinson ’13 moved to reclassify any criticism of Professor Katz’s incendiary language as a “bad faith” response to the op-ed’s arguments. This line of defense led Bellinson to a point where, when faced with Professor Eddie S. Glaude GS ’97’s observation in an interview that reading the op-ed gave him the sense that “Professor Katz ... seems not to regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton,” Bellinson accused him of “utter slander.” 

Let’s get this straight. Bellinson was agitating not only for the right to use dehumanizing language against Black students in the name of academic freedom, he was insisting on our moral obligation to give its user the benefit of the doubt. And when a Black professor said that this language made him feel less than human, Bellinson invoked defamation, the small corner of unprotected speech under Princeton’s Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities that is subject to disciplinary regulation. So much for free speech.

In the meantime, what has happened to the fight against racism? If the op-ed is, as its defenders have claimed, a constructive contribution to this fight, it’s because of its arguments. These arguments cannot be criticized as unconstructive because Professor Katz has indemnified them with his claim that “racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process.” 

Never mind that the premise of the faculty letter, which is centered on the voices of faculty of color, is that the processes to combat racism on campus aren’t working. What’s worth paying attention to here, at the very moment of inoculation against the (minimal) charge of being indifferent to racism, is a little adverb: “already.” 

Yes, there are a handful of changes that Professor Katz thinks are unobjectionable. He’s okay with giving all new assistant professors summer move-in allowances. But the recurring theme is: Things are fine just the way they are. Don’t require classes on the history and legacy of racism because classes in American history already have enough in them about slavery and race. No one can pass a purity test, so why try to think critically about the past? The op-ed reads above all as a plea. Please don’t ask me to think about racism, or change anything in the way I conduct my professional life at Princeton, or listen to people of color when they talk about racism. 

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What’s gotten lost in the talk about the right to free speech over the past couple weeks, as President Eisgruber recently emphasized, is the responsibility to maintain “a climate of mutual respect,” as laid out in 1.1.3 (“Statement of Freedom of Expression”) of the University’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities 2020. We all also have a responsibility to foster “an environment that recognizes both the distinctiveness of each person’s experience and the common humanity that unites us all,” as laid out at 1.1.4 (“Statement on Diversity and Community”). 

White members of the Princeton community, however, have a particular responsibility right now. We must do some searching self-examination about what this moment in the history of the fight against racism asks of us. We must try harder to hear what our colleagues of color are telling us before we demand the right to speak.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve been stunned by the repeated refusal to recognize the threats of violence that Black faculty, students, and alums routinely face when they exercise their rights to speak out, peacefully protest, and move freely. I believe Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor when she writes that after criticizing President Trump as a “racist, sexist megalomaniac” in a speech in 2017, she received a flood of emails threatening rape and lynching, and Princeton’s Department of African American Studies “was so flooded with hate that the locks on the doors had to be changed.” I believe Professor Tracy K. Smith when she reports that members of the Black Justice League saw “an uptick in death threats” after Professor Katz’s op-ed. I believe students of color who have reported being physically menaced on Princeton’s campus in recent weeks. If you defend the language of the op-ed against the charge of reckless endangerment, my question to you is this: “Why don’t you believe them?”

Anyone committed to the conversation around race on campus, and in classics and historical linguistics in particular, should read the recent statement signed by ninety students and alums of the Princeton Department of Classics and Program in Linguistics, a number of them Black, Latinx, and Asian.

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Especially unproductive is the attempt to keep the labor of faculty of color invisible by reframing it as privilege. We need to recognize and compensate this labor. We need to hire many more faculty of color. We need many more faculty of color in positions of leadership where their voices will be amplified and where they can implement their visions for this institution. And all of us on campus need to stop spending our energy fighting for the status quo and help take the spirit and the praxis of the faculty letter forward.

Brooke Holmes GS ’02 ’05 is a professor in the Department of Classics. She can be reached at bholmes@princeton.edu. 

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