This article is part of the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series. Click here to view the full project.
Confronting systemic racism starts at home
In the midst of a devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged thousands of lives, we all witnessed this summer the surge of another pandemic — one fueled by a different virus that has mutated frequently throughout history, yet remains embedded in this country’s foundations: racism.
The police brutality documented over the summer and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests across the globe inspired many Princeton students to take action. Books such as ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ had wait times at the University’s eBook website stretching up to 10 weeks, and University administrators distributed an anti-racist reading list compiled by two students. Others, including the previous Editorial Board, began to interrogate and demand a reimagining of policing and public safety on our campus.
While there are certainly students and student groups still doing necessary work to address systemic racism on campus, the concerted energy and desire for change we witnessed over the summer have undoubtedly diminished. Nevertheless, the work to create a more racially just society both nationally and here at Princeton remains urgent and unfinished. Thus, as Black History Month comes to an end, this Board has a message for all University community members: let’s start at home.
Princeton as a university and town has a rich Black history, but one that is fraught with racism and oppression. The Board encourages all students to not only learn about our institution’s past with racism, but to wholly engage with its present consequences as we continue to seek a more just future. Many of the students who attend this University are unaware of the history of Blackness and anti-Blackness within the institution and the town.
That’s not to say there aren’t resources to learn from, though. The Princeton & Slavery Project is a crucial resource that examines the University’s historical ties to slavery and ongoing legacies of institutional racism. The project also details the University’s historical and often exploitative relationship with Princeton’s Black residents, many of whom lived in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, which continues to be home for many of Princeton’s Black residents today. In addition, the Historical Society of Princeton’s Albert E. Hinds Memorial Walking Tour led by Princeton resident Shirley Satterfield gives an overview of African American history in Princeton and details important sites for the African American community. University organizations, like the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, also host events centered around this history.
Yet, it is still fairly easy to graduate from the University without substantively engaging with its history at all because students aren't required to take advantage of the resources that are available. There are ways the University could make this a requirement — for instance, by making mandatory Orientation activities centered around the history of race in Princeton as a University and town. But we shouldn't wait around for the University to make such changes. We as students should take it upon ourselves.
We must recognize that joining this community means not only taking advantage of the privileges afforded to us as Princeton students, but reckoning with how the oppression of Black people made these privileges possible. Educational resources are valuable and should be the first step in holding this institution and the town accountable for the trauma they have inflicted on Black lives. As we engage with these resources, we should not be shocked by what we find: anti-Black racism has been a feature of our country since its founding, so why should we expect Princeton to be any different?
Indeed, while the results of such research may be overwhelming and perhaps paralyzing, we must remember that, as James Baldwin said, “to accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Thus, using these resources to learn about our school and our town’s history should not be an endpoint. Rather, we should use history as a tool through which we can both understand and reimagine the world as it is now. Equipping ourselves with the knowledge of past injustices prepares us to fight their legacies in the present.
One immediate action we can take is to demand accountability from the University. It is now public knowledge that many of the University’s early benefactors derived their wealth from exploited Black labor. For example, former University Trustee Moses Taylor Pyne, whose name continues to be prominent on campus buildings and prizes, was deeply involved in the lucrative sugar trade of the 1800s, which was fueled by enslaved labor in the Caribbean. Furthermore, the Firestone family, who funded the construction of the Firestone Library, amassed their wealth from rubber plantations in Liberia. We should have conversations as a community about addressing these legacies, as the University has begun to do. And beyond this, we should also consider how to address the real harm these people — and the institution at large — have caused and the lasting effects of those injustices.
Some may find the argument presented here, and its implications, irrelevant to their daily lives at this University. We are all, of course, extremely busy students with our own interests, which many may feel do not directly involve struggles for racial equality. However, as other articles in the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series demonstrate, race and racism touch every aspect of the Princeton experience. It is a prominent issue that does not fit into neatly defined boxes meant only to be studied by historians, or during moments of social upheaval. If true change is to happen in society, these conversations need to be held year-round across the entire community.
Already this summer, we saw glimpses of the positive results that can come from the University being made to recognize the need for change. From the administration’s decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings and engage community members in thinking critically about campus iconography, to many academic departments and programs creating Diversity, Equity, Climate, and Inclusion committees, to pushes for diversifying the faculty pipeline and establishing continued education programming, the global Black Lives Matter protests inspired many concrete changes, however incremental many of them may seem in the long run.
Rather than waiting for these changes to yield results, though, it is essential that we as students take the initiative to think critically about the role race plays in our lives and how it intersects with our interests. Then, we must take action, either within our campus gates, or in the local community.
This can happen by joining other Princetonians in thinking critically about race while engaging in research and scholarship. There are also many groups and organizations on campus doing important work that students can support and become involved in, including SPEAR and Princeton Mutual Aid, and Black Leadership Coalition organizations such as Our Health Matters and the Black Student Union.
As part of our mission to “render visible perspectives the community might not otherwise see,” we as a Board remain committed to uplifting the stories that are so often overlooked.
While we are students on this campus, we are members of a community. We have an obligation to engage with our surroundings and leave it a better place for those coming after us. Let’s do our part. Let’s start at home.
145th Editorial Board
Mollika Jai Singh ’24
Shannon Chaffers ’22
Won-Jae Chang ’24
Kristal Grant ’24
Harsimran Makkad ’22
Anna McGee ’22
Collin Riggins ’24
Zachary Shevin ’22