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The Pretense That Princeton Is Racist
The president of Princeton is in a pickle. This summer, Christopher L. Eisgruber received a letter from more than 300 faculty members at the university asserting “indifference to the effects of racism on this campus.” They called on him “to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive” there and “to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”Princeton graduate students made similar claims. At the architecture school, an open letter asserted the existence of “ongoing anti-Black racism” and “white supremacy.” At the public-affairs school, a different open letter said, “The presence of an overwhelmingly white faculty creates an environment where instances of racism within the classroom often go unaddressed.”In response, President Eisgruber directed university leaders to spend the summer compiling reports on how to identify and combat “systemic racism.” And he declared in early September that while the institution long ago committed to being more inclusive, “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.” He added, “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”Those words arguably met the faculty letter’s demand to publicly acknowledge anti-Black racism at Princeton. But the same language was then cited by the Trump administration as justification for a Department of Education probe into whether the university has violated federal law.[Read: The cost of balancing racism and academia]The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declares that at institutions that receive federal funds, no person shall be subject to discrimination or denied the benefits of any activity on the basis of race.Princeton administrators have long affirmed that their institution is complying with those requirements. Given Eisengruber’s claims that racism persists at Princeton, that racist assumptions are embedded in its structures, and that systemic racism there damages the lives of Black people, the Department of Education says it wants to know if the university has been lying.The government’s letter concludes with intrusive demands to interview Princeton employees under oath and generate sensitive documents, including a list of each Princetonian who has been discriminated against on the basis of race since 2015, as well as records related to Eisengruber’s claims about “systemic” or “embedded” racism.The investigation is absurd. Princeton is highly sought after by Black applicants. In admissions it uses the race of minority applicants, who are admitted at higher rates, as a “plus” to achieve greater diversity in a way that very likely benefits Black applicants. It spends lavishly on “inclusion” efforts, holds events to celebrate (and name a building after) Black alumni, and dedicates resources to recruiting and hiring Black faculty and staff. No reasonable person deciding where federal officials should look for anti-Black civil-rights violations would probe the Ivy League University. But trolls waging a culture war against critical race theory might.As far as I can tell, the strategy is to force Princeton to either admit to serious anti-Black discrimination, risking devastating financial penalties, or else mount an affirmative case that the institution is not guilty of “systemic” anti-Black discrimination, exposing the racism claims of many administrators, faculty, and students as hyperbole. In its absurdity, then, the probe exposes the performative nature of some anti-racist rhetoric at Princeton and other elite universities.Defenders of the investigation see it that way too. In City Journal, Seth Barron characterized it as a maneuver that could neutralize the systemic-racism narrative. “If racism is institutionally embedded somewhere, the United States has a juggernaut of laws, courts, investigators, and prosecutors that can tear the offending institution into shreds and pulverize its racism,” he wrote. “So bring out your systemic racism, Princeton—let’s see it. Because if it isn’t documented or identifiable somewhere, or if it lurks below the level of consciousness as implicit bias, then it’s like phlogiston or aether, and just a form of juju or magical thinking.”[Read: The difference between first-degree and third-degree racism]So far, Princeton is denying any contradiction in its claims. On the one hand, it “stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment.” On the other hand, “the University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society.” Princeton declares, “It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.”But the Trump administration, for all its cynicism, likely does not believe that Princeton is grappling “honestly” with “systemic racism.” It likely believes that progressives at Princeton and elsewhere are overstating racism as a result of moral panic or to advance an identitarian agenda. Some skeptics of what’s come to be known as critical race theory suspect that because an overwhelming majority of Americans properly regard anti-Black racism as abhorrent, ideologues invoke racism promiscuously as a sort of shortcut to getting what they want.Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, a scholar of race and the law, is an incisive critic of that strategic hyperbole. “How racist are universities, really?” he asked last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, before the Department of Education announced its investigation. He found widespread hand-wringing. At Dartmouth, for example, the board of trustees recently stated, “We know there are no easy solutions to eradicate the oppression and racism Black and other students, faculty, and staff of color experience on our campus.” But no example of oppression was mentioned.Kennedy cited Dartmouth’s statement while reviewing “the evasiveness, if not mendacity, of administrators” who “pander to protestors, issuing faux mea culpas that any but the most gullible observers recognize as mere public relations ruses aimed at pacification.” As he sees it, “whatever wrongs universities have perpetrated or neglected to rectify are compounded when university authorities speak thoughtlessly or insincerely about matters that cut so deeply.”An allegation of systemic racism “is a serious charge,” Kennedy insisted. “If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong,” but if flimsy or baseless, that should be stated too. Kennedy warned that “minority students who take such indictments at face value—unaware of strategic hyperbole—become overwhelmed by unrealistic fears of encountering racist assessments that will unfairly limit their possibilities.”Kennedy aimed that criticism at Princeton in particular. He graduated from the institution in 1973, and noted in his article that “the exploitation and exclusion of African Americans is, indeed, deeply embedded in Princeton’s history.” As for its present, however, he dissented from this summer’s faculty letter, with its claims such as “anti-Black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” If Princeton’s racism “was as conspicuous as alleged, one would expect the ultimatum’s authors to be able to dash off some vivid, revealing examples,” Kennedy argued. He went on to call the claim of anti-Black racial exclusion implausible given various facts: prominent Black intellectuals who have made Princeton their academic home, scores of Black scholars who hold or recently held positions of academic leadership, and an African American dean of admissions. What’s more, he added, Princeton has a number of distinguished Black trustees. “These people, all Princeton alumni, are alert and capable and in demand,” he argued. “They are by no means needy. They could associate themselves with any number of prestigious enterprises. They would surely decline to contribute to or be involved with the sort of institution that the ultimatum depicts.”[Read: What is faculty diversity worth to a university?]Hyperbole about white supremacy at universities can obscure the true nature of real problems. For example, just 7 percent of faculty members at Princeton are Black, but citing that figure to prove that Princeton discriminates in hiring is misleading because, as Kennedy noted, African Americans in recent years earned only about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. “The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking,” he wrote. “They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.” By blaming Princeton for a problem endemic to American society, activists risk misdirecting resources earmarked for diversity, equity, and inclusion to university elites rather than the people who need them most: less privileged outsiders hindered from advancement through no fault of the institution.Academic stakeholders ought to eschew strategic hyperbole when doing the important work of diagnosing and remedying problems related to racial inequality on their campuses. If they keep inflating their claims, the term racism will lose whatever power it has to grab a community’s attention and prompt urgent remedies, even in the instances when racism is in fact operating.So is Team Trump doing a good thing? Seth Barron thinks so. In that same City Journal article, he wrote, “For too long, false confessions of racial piety have been used as a cudgel to intimidate reasonable people and transform American institutions. The Trump administration is right to take the systemic racists at their word and make their contrition cost them something.”I disagree. I object to the entire witch hunt of an investigation, which Republicans would recognize as a flagrant abuse of federal power were it aimed at Liberty University. No reasonable person could conclude that an onerous probe of Princeton for anti-Black racism is the best use, or even a good use, of scarce resources to safeguard civil rights. The decision to grapple with racism should not trigger a federal investigation, whether or not that grappling is totally honest.The Trump administration’s action has drawn wider attention to real rhetorical excesses. But if it doesn’t really believe that civil rights are being violated, then it is violating the First Amendment by misusing investigative power to punish speech. A president who weaponizes the administrative state against private institutions because he dislikes their public profile is a danger to the country.
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I glanced at the story, read it, and then moved on to something else. But the story of William B. Crews kept bothering me, because it might be a harbinger of things to come.Crews is—or was—an employee of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the federal agency run by Anthony Fauci. While working as a public-affairs officer for NIAID, Crews was also a prolific conspiracy theorist. He spent the past six months attacking Fauci, NIAID, and the American scientific establishment more generally, on the website, using the pseudonym “Streiff.” On Monday, Lachlan Markey of The Daily Beast published a story unmasking him. Crews abruptly retired that same day.The United States has a long tradition of government employees criticizing their superiors. But in his extracurricular writing, Crews was not composing whistleblower memos. These were not carefully sourced revelations of wrongdoing at the agency. Instead, they were rants that accused Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and many others of turning the coronavirus into a deliberate plot to undermine the Trump administration. In June, Crews attacked America’s most respected scientific bodies: “If there were justice,” he wrote, “we’d send and [sic] few dozen of these fascists to the gallows and gibbet their tarred bodies in chains until they fall apart.” In July, he attacked Fauci by name: “If you made those recommendations and they were disastrously wrong and based on bad science that you promulgated, you owe it to all of us to STFU and go away.”[Fauci to a meddling HHS official: ‘Take a hike’]These were not his only posts. “Streiff”—whose work, as of this writing, is still available on—also had views on the riots in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin; on Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore; on Attorney General Bill Barr (favorable) and former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman (unfavorable); on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (favorable) and CNN’s Jake Tapper (unfavorable). Nothing that he wrote was clever or surprising. Day after day he produced boringly predictable pablum, the sort of average-vile stuff pumped out on Fox or Breitbart News all the time. The only thing remarkable about this writing is that Crews was doing it while simultaneously being employed by a government body whose most important task is to fight exactly the kinds of conspiracy theories he was producing. He may even have been doing both at the same time. Markey could not determine whether Crews actually filed any of his posts from his office computer, but many of them first appeared during weekday working hours.In the everyday world, this kind of behavior would be considered bizarre: What type of person betrays his co-workers this way? But in the Trump administration, it is not unusual, especially among people who work at health agencies. Recently, Michael Caputo, the Trump-appointed head spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, was caught meddling with scientific reports on the pandemic put out by the CDC, which, like Fauci’s agency, is part of HHS; he then posted a Facebook video claiming that scientists at the CDC were plotting “sedition” and worse. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” Caputo said. “There are hit squads being trained all over this country,” he continued: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”Caputo, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has now gone on leave. But he was not the only one in his office who made wild statements expressing radical views. Yet another HHS political appointee, Paul Alexander, regularly sent emails harassing employees of the CDC. He described its deputy director, the physician Anne Schuchat, as “duplicitous” for saying she hoped the country could “take [the pandemic] seriously and slow the transmission … we have way too much virus across the country.” Alexander also regularly sought to censor weekly scientific and statistical reports—the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” to be precise—written by the nation’s most important public-health institution, describing them as “hit pieces” targeting the Trump administration.My Atlantic colleague David A. Graham recently noted that Caputo may well represent the face of a second-term Trump administration. Instead of people with expertise and competence, the White House and Cabinet agencies will contain ideologues with no experience—or, worse, ideologues with a long record of bad judgment and terrible errors. But the cases of Crews, Caputo, and Paul Alexander suggest an additional conclusion: that people whose jobs require them to provide “alternative facts” on a regular basis might eventually break under the strain. Maybe there is a price to be paid, in loss of mental clarity, for supporting the fantasy world needed to sustain this president.[Read: Anthony Fauci, lightning rod]This is worth contemplating, because in this election year we are grappling with something entirely new. The president, the Republican Party, and its campaign machine are collectively seeking to create a completely false picture of the world. This isn’t just a matter of wishful thinking or a few white lies. The president’s campaign staff needs voters to believe that the virus is over, or else that it never mattered; that 200,000 people did not really die; that schools aren’t closed; that shops aren’t boarded up; that nothing much happened to the economy; that America is ever more respected around the world; that climate change isn’t real; that the U.S. has no legitimate protesters, only violent thugs who have been paid by secretive groups. This fantasy has to be repeated every day, in multiple forms, on Fox News, in GOP Facebook ads, on websites like RedState. Inevitably, it will affect people’s brains.It is easy to see why Trump appointees who work in institutions that deal with science and public health might be the first to break: Their jobs require them to grapple every day with data that they have to deny. But the same dissonance may also be fueling some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories now circulating online. The adherents of the QAnon cult may have literally been driven past the point of reason. In order to make sense of the world they can see all around them, they have created an elaborate and obviously false explanation—that an omniscient Trump is fighting a cabal of deep-state Satanists and pedophiles. No wonder Republicans, instead of shunning QAnon believers, are working to elect some of them to Congress in November. They genuinely serve a function, helping Trump supporters navigate the gap between the reality they live in and the fiction they see on Fox and Facebook.Looking at this bizarre moment in a longer lens can be quite sobering. Parallel situations are hard to come by, and I can think of no similar election to take place in any democracy, no moment when Danes or Spaniards were forced to choose between reality and fiction. The only historical parallels come, inappropriately, from Stalin’s Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other regimes that created elaborate propaganda versions of the world and then forced people to pretend they were true. But those alternative realities were backed up by violence. America does not have that kind of police state. There are no mass arrests or concentration camps for political dissidents. Nobody is forcing people to swallow the Republican Party fantasy. The decision to do so remains purely voluntary.That, of course, is everyone else’s salvation: Voters can still choose to grapple with reality—to read real news, to seek accurate information, to use our daily experience as a guide before deciding what to believe—without fear. But for people like “Streiff”—people who actually work in this administration, and people who would choose to work in a second Trump administration—reality might no longer be an option.
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