This article is part of the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series. Click here to view the full project.
In the wake of a recent racial reckoning nationwide, it has become fashionable to proclaim in vogue phrases about how the personal is political and how we must embody radicalism in our lifestyle choices and discursive methods. In particular, those liberals who had internalized the myth of a post-racial America — due to the presence of figures such as President Barack Obama — were utterly shell-shocked to discover that racism was indeed alive and well in the country of which they had become so proud. This uncritical patriotism aside, they had to grapple with their own sense of wrongdoing after identifying themselves with the nation and thereby setting the stage for their own felt complicity with injustice and oppression.
This guilt inspires those who feel it not to take concrete actions to fix the problem but rather to participate in superficial activities that are ultimately devoid of actionable content. Given the recent commitment by the University to fighting racism, this is immediately relevant and concerns all parties who are part of the campus community.
Within the context of Black History Month, especially, we should interrogate the University’s current efforts as we consider what a more just institution would look like. For example, the recent news about the creation of Diversity, Equity, Climate, and Inclusion Committees in academic departments may seem like a step in the right direction. However, previous experience demonstrates that these committees rarely create lasting or substantial change, especially as they are constrained by the outlook and material interests of the administration.
No matter how many people go through sensitivity training, no matter how diverse the pool of incoming academics, and no matter how much people are permitted to theorize about the impact of racism on society, Princeton will not become an anti-racist force until it is no longer recognizable as Princeton by those who currently know it.
Why, a reader may wonder, is the University incapable of reform? To understand this, we need only look at the history which, inconvenient though it may be for some, is a matter of vital importance. One example is the University’s response to proposed changes to the Honor Code. Even though the referenda to reform the Honor Code were passed in 2017 with an overwhelming amount of student support, the proposed changes were in large part rejected by the University. This is despite the fact that students are the objects of its force.
It is easy to see from this example that the University is unresponsive to student input in spite of the fact that the code is — as a point of institutional pride — said to be of, by, and for the students. Every student would have benefited from these reforms, but the cost of administrative intransigence is not the same across the board. As long as the cost of taking an unexpected and punitive leave of absence (the consequence for violating the Honor Code) is felt differently by students in different life circumstances, these penalties will carry along with them the stain of racial injustice, allowed to persist by the antidemocratic reception of the honor reforms by the school.
The punitive measures of the Honor Code are hardly the only way in which the University perpetuates carceral logics rooted in racial injustice. When a group of students fought for the University to ban the criminal history box from the undergraduate application, we were slapped in the face by the university, who added that same box to the graduate school application. Citing vague safety concerns, the University disguised its commitment to the racial order of American capitalism behind a veneer of their dedication to the personal security of those on campus. And as always, the administration did not want to answer questions as illustrated by recent revisions to CPUC meeting policies, which now require that questions be submitted in advance.
These individual policies notwithstanding, it is the case that the University is in need of radical transformation, down to the level of its basic operations over the past several centuries. I am talking about the University’s endowment, which is now valued at more than 26 billion dollars. The lack of transparency in where this money comes from, what it is built on, and how it is managed is unacceptable. Especially given the racist underpinnings of the University’s initial accumulation of wealth, as the Princeton & Slavery Project demonstrates, it is clear that any meaningful effort to create a more anti-racist institution must directly engage and seek ultimately to redirect the endowment to serving the interests of the marginalized. Under the current status quo, the likelihood of this occurring is slim to none.
This status quo, of course, exists not only at Princeton but throughout American society. And, like the society around it, the University is in desperate need of revolution and not reform. But we can't rely on its own institutions to enact these changes — if the policy reforms detailed above were not enacted, how can more substantial modifications up to and including the democratization of life on campus be hoped for?
The answer is simple: Hope for the future does not reside in workshops where we learn to check our respective privileges and unintentionally propagate much of the mythology that sustains racism. Rather, it exists in our potential for joint, multiracial struggle that tears power away from an administration that has amply demonstrated that even progressive reforms are beyond the scope of its institutional aspirations.
The very existence of Princeton, which hoards billions while other colleges have virtually nothing by comparison, should be enough to show which side of societal inequality the University as a whole stands on; it should be enough to demonstrate that the University, as it is currently structured, is inherently incompatible with ideas of equity and anti-racism.
Structures outside of Princeton will have to change to rectify this type of imbalance, but within the University as well, we must be fighting against the antidemocratic processes that often see the most disadvantaged among us suffer the consequences of systemic social inequality.
Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.