Many universities have recently announced plans to address persistent racism in our society and on their campuses. Last week, the Department of Education launched an investigation into one of these, interpreting Princeton’s commitment (as expressed by President Chris Eisgruber) to address the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow as evidence that this institution violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The charge is at best inappropriate. With respect to the laws cited in the Department’s accusation, Princeton is in compliance. Princeton does not exclude or deny people participation in its educational programs on the basis of race, color or national origin. Non-discrimination—the thing to which Princeton and other universities attest—is not the same as eradicating racism, the thing Eisgruber (like many of us) wants to do.
The United States and many colleges and universities did discriminate against Black Americans for a long time. That history of legal subordination has legacies in the present, and across this country some seemingly race-neutral policies still reflect past discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes. And although legal discrimination has ended, institutions founded for comparatively homogeneous groups are still working to build genuinely inclusive environments. This is not news, and it’s not illegal.
Even the journalists, ed-tech disruptors and Yale grads who freely confess their schadenfreude at Princeton’s plight fully recognize that this investigation is perverse.
Talk about eradicating racism in the academy inspires fear. I wish it didn’t. Fear leads us to focus on the wrong questions. We fight about when United States history began, instead of asking how US history looks different depending on when you think it started. We defend existing departmental prerogatives, instead of asking what kind of institutional organization could best support scholarship across the full range of human cultures and accomplishments. We cling to inherited traditions instead of asking how, given our current student population, we can help each person feel like she belongs. And we fight about how bad current racism actually is instead of working to eliminate it.
If we could see past our fear of what we might lose, as President Eisgruber is pushing us to do, we might together begin to build a future better than anything we can now imagine.