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No, publishing racist research is not progress: Why we need to reshape our understanding of academic freedom

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

This summer has been tiring. It has been tiring for everyone, but it has been particularly tiring for people of color, and especially tiring for Black people. A mishandling of the pandemic by politicians more focused on elections than public health means we have spent the summer sheltered at home, bombarded every day with news of more coronavirus cases, more coronavirus deaths, and a growing indifference to a pandemic that is disproportionately killing people of color. 

We have watched again and again the video of a Black man, George Floyd, being murdered for the world to see — a video that forced Black people, from professional athletes to politicians to everyday citizens, to relive their own experiences with racism and recount them for a world that seems determined to discount them. In response to Floyd’s death, we have seen the largest Civil Rights uprising since the 1960s, demanding, yet again, a racial reckoning in this country. As people filled the streets to affirm their humanity and declare their objection to the injustice they saw, the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others on their lips, the country appeared to be ready for this reckoning. 

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For a few weeks, I felt energized by a country that seemed ready to listen, acknowledge, and act upon the injustices faced by people of color. I felt energized as a Princeton student when the University decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of International and Public Affairs and the residential college. Yes, I understood it was not enough, it was only the beginning, but it finally felt like Princeton was listening to its Black community, who have had to endure the burden of Wilson’s racist legacy. 

I felt empowered as an aspiring journalist because journalists of color began to speak out against the racism they experience in their newsrooms. I felt inspired as a soccer fan as players in the NWSL and Premier League made clear they will not tolerate racism in their sport. I felt energized to learn more, and then to do more, because I saw a path for change. I started reading “Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi’s comprehensive history of the racist ideas that provide a roadmap for how America got to where it is, and how the status quo reinforces the racist society we live in. 

As I finished the book, the energy and empowerment I felt, bolstered by the knowledge that I now had a comprehensive framework to tackle the challenges of racial inequality today, began to erode, replaced again with tiredness. I was tired because a Princeton professor decided to write an article, which, in addition to calling Black student activists terrorists, undermined the faculty letter calling for anti-racist reforms on campus and threatened that an attempt to institute these policy proposals would lead to “a civil war on campus.” Tired because this person decided to then construe himself as the victim, writing multiple op-eds defending his letter, and reveling in his ability to survive “cancellation,” once again centering on his voice as a white man, rather than the faculty of color who had taken a courageous step in challenging the status quo. Tired because President Eisgruber can somehow acknowledge that this professor lied about the Black Justice League’s methods of protest, but still defend his right to promote this racist lie by not disciplining him. 

Tired because a white Princeton student can use the n-word on his Facebook page and not face any consequences, despite more than 1,400 students calling for a disciplinary hearing. Tired because we received an email from the administration today which explained that Princeton’s free speech policies protect the use of that slur; that, apparently, using this slur towards a Black person in the context of a racist argument claiming that educated Black people can’t “speak for” other Black people, is justified. Tired because a U.S. senator defended slavery as a necessary evil in the building of America. 

In short, I felt tired because I could see that the same systems I had read about that were used in the past to defend racism and legitimize racist ideas were playing out right in front of me.

I was actually planning to write a satirical piece, thinking that satire would be a powerful tool to illuminate the hypocrisies of how people misuse freedom of speech and academic freedom to uphold the white supremacist status quo. But yesterday morning, when I read Professor Harman’s column titled “Racist research must be named, but often allowed,” where she at once expressed her belief that racist research is immoral, while at the same time defending that research as necessary, I realized this is not a situation that can be countered by hypotheticals, hyperbole, or humor. 

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How can I laugh at the fact that a professor at Princeton who claims to have my best interest at heart, a professor who wants to see racial equality in America, argues that racist research is necessary for such progress? That research which argues that there is something wrong with people who look like me, and that we are in any way inferior to white people, is beneficial? How can I laugh when just this past week, a professor at NYU published an article arguing that “non-Western” people lack a capacity for self-control, and that our problem “is no longer oppression, but freedom?” 

Professor Harman argues that publishing racist research is ultimately a question of morality, and that if we define the lines of acceptable research on the principles of morality, we are restricting academic freedom. “Some immoral research must be permitted and protected,” she writes. First of all, I object to Harman’s implicit acceptance of the idea that it is permissible for professors, who teach students of color, to believe that racism and racist systems are moral. But the notion that immorality informs racist research is not the only reason such research should be prohibited. 

Let’s look at why the idea for the formation of a committee “that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty” was called for in the first place. It is part of a list of demands to make Princeton a more anti-racist campus. It is included in the demands because the 350 people who signed it, led by faculty of color, recognize that research has concrete consequences for people beyond FitzRandolph Gate. 

This is not a hypothetical game, as Professor Harman presents it, in which the only thing harmed by this committee is the abstract principle of academic freedom, which seems to be placed above the concerns of the actual people who make up the University community. No, these professors know, because they have experienced it firsthand, that racist research and racist rhetoric causes harm. 

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Harman falsely claims we don’t have a clear definition of racism, ignoring the work numerous scholars have already done to develop concrete definitions of it and how it operates. Racism, as Kendi defines it, is the belief that any one group of people is superior to another because of their race. Racism does not just manifest itself in an act of explicit ill will towards people of color. It manifests itself in the structures of our society, which are built on racist ideas that Black people are inferior to white people.  

These racist ideas cause harm to communities of color plagued by poverty, a poverty which results from a refusal to acknowledge and rectify the systemic oppression Black people have faced. It comes as no surprise that Lawrence Mead, the NYU professor who wrote the racist article essentially blaming the innate behavioral inferiority of people of color for their poverty, was involved in the welfare reforms of the 1980s and ’90s. These reforms, which disproportionately hurt Black people, instituted work requirements for welfare based on the premise that Black people are lazy and don’t like to work. 

These racist ideas also prevent social mobility through education. “Intellectuals” like Charles Murray argue that based on standardized testing, Black people are intellectually inferior to white people, thereby justifying their underrepresentation in selective high schools and selective universities. High schools and colleges continue to use these standardized tests in admissions, despite the fact that they have been shown to be racially biased, meaningless measures that only serve as a barrier blocking Black people from educational opportunities. 

These ideas also cause harm in privileged spaces, like Ivy League campuses. There are countless testimonies on the Black Ivy Stories Instagram — which started after George Floyd’s death — from students of color who say they felt pressured by their deans, professors, or peers not to major in STEM fields because they weren’t deemed intellectually capable. There is the story from the Princeton student who overheard their future USG president call Black people unintelligent. Students still recall the time they were forced to endure a white professor using the n-word in a class as an intellectual exercise, ignoring the trauma this caused for the Black people in his class. Then, they had to watch as President Eisgruber defended that professor instead of recognizing the students’ pain. 

These experiences add up and chip away at Black students’ sense of equality and humanity. It’s embarrassing, but true, that I often found myself underlining words in Kendi’s book that countered the logic behind the idea that Black people were inferior, intellectually, behaviorally, and culturally. So, whenever I see this argument playing out in real life, whether on my Twitter feed or in the writings of established University professors, I can go back to those words to affirm to my brain what I know in my heart is true — that my skin color does not make me inferior to my white peers. 

Whenever we tolerate the publishing, the legitimizing, of these racist ideas, we say it is okay for students of color to face these injustices, injustices which force us to relive trauma, or force us to search for an outside source to affirm our humanity. Is this the progress that Professor Harman speaks of, when she argues that in order to move forward as a racially equal society we have to allow for racist ideas that physically and emotionally harm Black people? Is this the “necessary evil” that people of color have to contend with in order that their white peers might come to the conclusion that we are, indeed, their equals? 

Professors who actually believe in racial equality should embrace a committee of experts on the workings of racism who will alert them that they are perpetuating racist ideas in their research. Professors who believe there is something wrong with people of color, people whom I assume we wouldn’t want to teach at our University anyway, would be barred from publishing racist research motivated by this false belief. Because, as Professor Andrew Cole argued in a recent column, white supremacy obfuscates and impedes progress towards an equal society. It obscures and absolves the systems of racism and oppression that actually determine the world as it is today. And this white supremacy is alive and well, operating throughout the world.

Despite Professor Harman’s arguments to the contrary, white supremacy will not go away by simply presenting other, antiracist ideas. As Kendi shows in “Stamped,” the history of antiracist ideas in this country can be traced to the beginning of the racist ideas in this country. If one could simply erase white supremacy by presenting counter arguments, we would surely be rid of it by now. But Harman’s argument ignores the fact that the development of white supremacy is not just some accident perpetrated by ignorant people; it is an intentional set of ideas, often legitimized through elite institutions, that are used to maintain racial hierarchies, to the benefit of white people, and white men in particular. 

In America, racial inequity is everywhere. Racial disparities exist in our criminal justice system, our education system, our health care system, our housing policies. Racist white supremacist ideas seek to justify these disparities by arguing there is something wrong with people of color — that the unequal position they are in is their fault. In doing so, they maintain the racial hierarchy that people fighting racial inequality are fighting to dismantle. We know these ideas are wrong, we know that race is a social construct that has no actual bearing on intelligence or behavioral traits — certainly Professor Harman seems to understand that. So when someone argues that we should publish ideas that refute this truth, not only does this go against all principles of academia and research, but it also hinders us from creating an equal society because we are ignoring the true root of these disparities — racist policies — and thus making it impossible to resolve them.

Kendi recently started an antiracist research center at Boston University, and its mission is to redefine research within an antiracist framework. As the center’s website states, “whereas racist research historically has posed the question, ‘What is wrong with people?’ antiracist research now asks a different question, a better question: ‘What is wrong with policies?’” This is the type of research that should be encouraged at a truth-seeking university. This is how we make progress. We need research that starts from the foundation that everybody, and every culture, is equal. Any argument to the contrary, especially an argument that says the tolerance and uplifting of white supremacist ideas as legitimate research is a form of progress, is both disingenuous and dangerous.

So, when we endorse ideas of academic freedom or freedom of speech to defend racist professors, racist students, and racist research, what are we really defending? Many people in this country, including on this campus, understand that we are defending the status quo, embracing a power structure that benefits whites, and sanctioning the racial inequality that exists in our society. I would hope those who, like Professor Harman, agree that racism is immoral, and that America is in need of a racial reckoning, would see the products of that racism, including the racist research which exists all around us, as not only immoral, but unacceptable and counterproductive. And instead of trying to defend the systems and principles that got us here, actually consider what it would mean to upend them.

Shannon Chaffers is a junior from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at sec3@princeton.edu.

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