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Without democracy, Princeton’s anti-racism promise will remain hollow

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

In a recent column, Braden Flax argued that while we must call out the Department of Education’s (DOE) investigation into the University as an obvious sham, we can’t take our eyes off the ball in the fight against institutional racism. Yesterday, the administrators confirmed why such scrutiny is crucial.

In a webinar about their efforts to promote equity and combat systemic racism, Nassau Hall tried to convince us that it stands up for its Black students, advocates in the best interest of all its constituencies, and positively impacts the world at large. 

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Yet the administration has paved a road to anti-racism that leads nowhere but dead-ends. Only when we manage the University democratically can the interests of the historically oppressed be genuinely manifest in its operations. An assessment of the University’s history, alongside an appraisal of how Nassau Hall has approached the anti-racist struggle to this point, suggests that asking the powers that be for satisfactory solutions is both misguided and self-defeating, somewhat akin to imploring a wolf to guard a flock of sheep.

No matter how encouraging recent actions the University community has taken may appear, they must be treated with skepticism. In addition to webinars like the one from yesterday, many students may feel that the recent donations from Black and brown alumni will finally be the tipping point, pushing Princeton to embrace the demands made by its Black and brown students, alumni, and faculty.

It is with deep regret that we point out the superficiality these donations represent. For two related reasons, they will not yield an institutional commitment to social justice. First, due to the University’s disproportionately white and wealthy alumni base, equity cannot be established through the financial donations of a few.

Second, and more importantly, the concrete action that anti-racist activists have demanded will remain unfeasible so long as the University’s persistently antidemocratic structure remains unchallenged. As evidenced by the administration’s refusal to heed student activists’ requests, Princeton can only embody anti-racist values if governed by students and faculty.

Democratic governance means giving voice to the constituencies integral to the functioning of the University. While this proposal may seem superfluous to non-BIPOC students, who may view these conversations as irrelevant, we implore all community members to disregard this ethos and to examine how, under the University’s current structure of governance, we homogeneously lack power, regardless of political beliefs. 

Nowhere is democratic control more desperately needed than the endowment. Often, we hear the administration pay lip service to grappling with the University’s racist legacies; we also hear about the $26 billion endowment that the University has amassed over time. Seldom, however, are these two legacies connected. Failing to recognize their link allows Princeton to erase the fact that the endowment directly results from the University’s exploitative labor practices, both in the past and present.

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To address this relationship would be self-destructive for administrators and trustees — it is their job to treat the endowment as untouchable and sacrosanct, and this obligation prevents them from carrying out meaningful anti-racist work. Treating the endowment in this way reflects the University’s undemocratic control over funds, as the Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC) has pointed out.

At an institution where students, faculty and campus workers are the ones most crucial to the University’s daily life, such as through teaching, research, or service, there is no plausible justification as to why the administration — which is removed from these operations — may guard the endowment with such secrecy. The few hold dominion over the University, a fact incompatible with a thoroughgoing recognition that Princeton was built, in every sense of the word, by the many.

This revelation holds consequences for how we approach anti-racism within the University. For example, when Professor Joshua Katz erroneously accused the Black Justice League of terrorism, many felt our only recourse was to appeal to the University’s better nature, assuming the institution could be pressured to “do the right thing.”

But we must understand here the difference between “calling the manager” and being the manager. As we are reduced to asking the University to adjudicate what is and is not racist, we are begging those who had to be embarrassed into the few concessions that have been made, thus reinforcing our inferiority, even as we comprise the majority. In the same way that we cannot expect the DOE to credibly determine whether Princeton is racist, we cannot expect Nassau Hall as it is composed now to respond to racist speech in a constructive manner.

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Of course, none of this is to say that action cannot be taken. Relying on alumni donations and administrative discretion is an error, no matter how well-intentioned the people who commit to it are. But we can still make anti-racist change if we — the students, faculty, and campus workers — directly govern the actions that affect us. Our action can extend beyond anti-racist efforts, laying the groundwork for all sectors of the University to self-govern.

Consider: To what degree has our input actually shaped the University’s approach in dealing with coronavirus? From grading policy to the treatment of the workers who allow the campus to function under normal circumstances, the University has largely ignored our preferences.

On another note, wouldn’t it make more sense if we had full knowledge and, ultimately, control of the University’s financial dealings, rather than seeking futile pledges to divest from any one of several problematic industries? 

The reality is, nothing will be done for the students and campus workers who need change, so long as the venal relic of an antidemocratic administration hoards the University’s assets and the Board of Trustees remain compelled by their very job descriptions to relieve anti-racism of whatever fangs it might carry.

Luckily, whether those fangs can grow back is our call, not theirs. It is in the interest of most of the campus community to ensure that they do. One way to begin this work is to participate in the aforementioned anti-austerity coalition, which emerged this summer. 

Ensuring the administration will fulfill their anti-racist promises is not only in the interest of the University community. Indeed, the administration’s actions also impact the local Princeton community, the neighboring Trenton community, and global policies, due to the influence Princeton holds and the fact that it produces leaders in our world.

Such an effort, then, will benefit myriad communities outside the University. For these reasons, creating a democratic Princeton is a crucial and necessary first step in the national and global fight against racism. 

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu. Kristal Grant is a first-year from Kingston, Jamaica. She can be reached at khgrant@princeton.edu

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