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Law as rhetoric: how anti-racism is being weaponized against itself

<h4>U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).</h4>
<h6>Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/people/22007612@N05" target="_self">Flickr</a></h6>

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Recently, it was announced that the Department of Education (DOE) would investigate Princeton’s self-admitted propagation of systemic racism. If the University has been racist, after all — throughout President Eisgruber’s tenure and before — then it is and has been undeserving of federal funds. At its face, this is clearly absurd, given that if this is the standard, the American government may just as well recall funds from virtually all institutions; this step by the DOE, whose secretary was appointed by the man who just went on a rant regarding the lack of patriotism in school curricula, is clearly an effort to single Princeton out for a long-overdue statement of basic historical fact. 

The DOE has asked the University that its specific racist incidents be comprehensively enumerated; while such an itemized account could probably be created, this misses the point that racism cannot be captured by a laundry list of arguably discriminatory activities by individuals. Further discussion of this is beside the point since this investigation is unlikely to actually go anywhere, given the legal and financial resources at the University’s disposal. However, this development matters for two reasons: first, even if the DOE fails to push Princeton around, its efforts will send a message to other, less prominent institutions that might one day step out of line, and second, it exemplifies the legalistic mind games that exist as surely at the University as in the Trump administration.


This announcement was clearly not made for the purpose of ensuring compliance with civil rights law. Rather, it is an effort to use this law as an excuse to target an institution that has, however disingenuously, mouthed the words of racial justice. Are we really to believe that Trump and his oh-so-conscientious underlings are deeply concerned with actual structural racism, given how frequently they talk about how critical race theorists are the “real racists”? Certainly not, and as it turns out, we are not even really intended to believe this; there has been no attempt here to actually be persuasive. 

This is a classic case of “owning the Libs,” as is evident in the gleeful reception the announcement got from many well-known conservative commentators. Such terms as “brilliant” and “spectacular” are those that people deploy after someone gets “destroyed” in debate. These are not the words of people who are sincerely concerned with grappling with the racist history of the country’s most prestigious institutions. In other words, this was done to make a point and to create a media splash, signaling to a certain part of the population that anti-racism can be weaponized against itself. This is, of course, not out of character for a man who once sued a comedian for five million dollars for a joke about Trump’s birth certificate. The difference is that now Trump is not only a billionaire playing with the legal system as might a toddler with a toy; instead, he directly oversees the massive institutional apparatus of the U.S. government. And as he and his allies will have you know, you had better not even voice opposition, let alone concretely resist.

But for all this criticism of Trump and the American government, which cannot be permitted to systematically gut the public sector and university education alike, let us not allow ourselves to be mixed up. While the attack on Princeton is not only unwarranted but preposterous in this case, the University as an institution and many sectors of campus can hardly be said to be aligned with any sort of anti-racist project. Further, there are even stunning parallels here to the above criticism of Trump and his mediocre band of enforcers. After all, is control over Princeton’s endowment, undeniably accumulated on a racist basis, any less precious to University trustees than the safeguarding of white supremacy is from the vantage point of a Fox commentator? For that matter, numerous wasteful and counterproductive expenditures, from the Wilson installation to virtual Lawnparties, are direct evidence for the necessity of the very anti-racist discourse on campus that is branded by Trumpian conservatives and campus reactionaries alike as the actual racism of today.

Whether on campus or on right-wing radio, it is easy to see a very mechanical, ahistorical framework for approaching racism. In the same way that no one actually believes that Trump is legitimately attacking “anti-racist” universities like our own from the left, it is equally implausible to genuinely claim that the n-word is okay, or that the 6 percent of the endowment is sacred, or for that matter, that Princeton is not, albeit in a very different way than the Trumpists intend to imply, actually culpable for the racism that might see it emptied of federal funds. So while we might have long-term social cause to rejoice if and when this investigation is exposed for the crude intimidation that it is, this should not lull us into a sense of harmony or comradeship among all those on campus. We have our own administration and our own reactionaries, and at the end of the day, they are no more our allies than Trump and his cronies.

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.