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To create a more inclusive campus, Princeton must act against racist speech

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

At a virtual town hall last month, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 stood by the University’s hardline free-speech policy, which came under fire this summer, after his administration declined to respond to instances of racist speech, citing free speech protections. If the events of this summer made clear that Princeton has failed in its efforts to combat racism and prejudice on campus, Eisgruber’s remarks only underscored this reality.

We have received many messages professing the University’s commitment to the ongoing fight for racial equality in the United States. But actions speak louder than words. What does it mean to increase faculty and staff diversity, as President Eisgruber announced he intends to do, if the community they join does not stand against racism they may encounter?

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The incidents over the summer — most notably, Professor Joshua Katz’s op-ed, in which he referred to Black student activists as “terrorists,” and a student’s use of the n-word in a Facebook post — are just the latest in a long history of racism on campus, as is made clear on the Black Ivy Stories Instagram page and in numerous Tiger Confessions posts. While administrators have criticized both Katz and the student’s choice of words, they refused to take meaningful action, instead writing at length about the University’s free speech policy and the protection it affords such speech. 

Nassau Hall continues to shroud racist speech under the banner of free expression. This obfuscation allows our community to push instances of racism out of sight, as the University ignores the harassment that Black students face.

Yet, Nassau Hall’s supposedly unwavering conviction that free speech — even that which makes one uncomfortable — is our institution’s lifeblood fell apart when administrators were made to feel uncomfortable. In the fall of 2015, the University threatened student activists from the Black Justice League  with disciplinary consequences. The administration further denied these students secure accommodations, even when they received death threats. That is the very definition of suppressing speech. 

The University trots out its free speech policy to brush aside cases of racism while failing to protect the speech of those protesting racism. In so doing, it reveals the harmful consequences of an imbalance of power that protects the status quo of institutionalized racism. For too long, white people, and particularly white men, in this country and on this campus, have held the power to decide what constitutes acceptable speech and action. They have consistently deemed racist, and particularly anti-Black, fictions acceptable. 

These ideas cause demonstrable harm to students of color who make up the University community. They force students to question their place on our campus, because they suggest Black people’s intellectual or behavioral inferiority make them incapable of succeeding in higher education.

The prevalence of these ideas lead some away from STEM fields, or cause them to feel ashamed to “be born Black” — a feeling a student expressed on Tiger Confessions — because these ideas insist that Black people, especially women, are ugly and undeserving of respect or love. Those who use free speech to defend racist ideas are essentially saying that it is acceptable for Black students to exist in a perpetual state of discomfort, leaving them vulnerable to numerous traumatic experiences, in the name of an abstract principle that is prioritized over the well-being of our community members.

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Those in power either uphold this harmful status quo because they know it benefits them, or because they are ignorant of the damage it causes. As James Baldwin famously said, “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” 

Time and time again the University has acted as an enemy to justice, abusing its powers by deploying free speech language when addressing charges of racism. So it is time for a shift in power. Written in the free speech policy is the stipulation that speech “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University” can be restricted.

The lies of white supremacy, and the speech that perpetuates them, are at odds with the University’s truth-seeking mission, and must be considered incompatible with its functioning. When dealing with cases of racism, therefore, the free speech policy should not be invoked. 

The University should start treating racist speech for what it is: harassment. Thus, the University’s policy on harassment is far more relevant to cases of racism than is the free speech policy. Indeed, the harassment policy as currently written prohibits disparaging remarks that target “protected characteristics” such as race. That includes the use of racial slurs.

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While the Board believes the harassment policy is the framework through which the University should address racist speech, we harbor concerns about the punitive disciplinary consequences it entails. To address specific instances of racism, the University has other, more constructive methods at its disposal.

We suggest the University adopt constructive levers of change, which would both respond to specific instances of racist speech or action and proactively apply to all students. Responsive measures could include anti-racist training for those who transgress the harassment policy; the curriculum would be tailored to the transgression and explain why an individual’s actions caused harm.

Foundational work, such as including anti-racist education in the first-year orientation and peer support programs, is just as important. Bolstering avenues of formal communication, such as Sexual Harassment/ Assault Advising, Resources & Education (SHARE), Residential College Advisers (RCAs), and other means of peer accountability, are essential steps towards building a more equitable campus. 

It remains puzzling how administrators can at once believe racist speech goes against their values of inclusivity and do nothing as Black students endure racist speech from their professors and peers. Students should no longer shoulder the burden of accommodating such racist behavior in the name of free speech. 

The University must stop invoking free speech to mischaracterize a conversation that should only take place in the context of harassment. Until Nassau Hall decides to prevent the most obvious forms of racism from festering on campus, its commitment to uprooting systemic racism will ring hollow. 

144th Editorial Board

Members

Benjamin Ball ’21

Shannon Chaffers ’22

Rachel Kennedy ’21

Madeleine Marr ’21

Jonathan Ort ’21

Elizabeth Parker ’21

Mollika Jai Singh ’24

Emma Treadway ’22

Ivy Truong ’21 

Cy Watsky ’21

Zachariah Sippy ’23 dissented from the writing of this editorial.

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