As institutions of higher learning begin to do the long-overdue work of examining structural racism within their communities, President Donald Trump’s administration is fighting hard to ensure it goes unacknowledged. On Sept. 2, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote a statement to the Princeton community addressing systemic racism and acknowledging that “racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” The statement goes on to detail a number of new initiatives at Princeton that aim to create a more welcoming and diverse campus.
In response, the Trump administration launched an investigation into Princeton’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance.” In a letter to Eisgruber, the Department of Education argued that by admitting racism inherent to the institution, Princeton was also admitting that they discriminated based on race and were therefore in violation of the Civil Rights Act and ineligible for federal funding.
Princeton stood by the original statement, as they should have. Grappling with a fraught history, and attempting some remedy, is something that all institutions should strive to do. One of the examples that President Eisgruber cites, the nine departments centered around European language and culture departments at Princeton versus one centered around African studies, is a discrepancy that can be found at other universities across America.
The reaction by the Department of Education to Princeton was unique. Plenty of other universities have admitted to systemic racism at their schools, including flagship institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, without the threat of legal action by the Trump administration.
So then, why Princeton? Likely, the timing of the statement by Princeton fits in with Trump’s ill-advised strategy of pretending that racism no longer exists. It’s an odd position to take, given that more than three-quarters of Americans agree that racism and discrimination are “a big problem,” as stated in a Monmouth University poll released in early June. By equating an admission of systemic racism to a violation of the Civil Rights Act, the Trump administration’s official position seems to be that the Civil Rights Act solved racism, and if it didn’t, that’s a personal problem. Most Americans don’t seem to agree with that anymore.
There were plenty of conservative commenters who reacted with glee at the administration’s announcement that they were going to investigate Princeton. Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted an article about the news, saying “This is absolutely spectacular,” but reactions seemed less focused on whether this was a smart policy move on the part of the Department of Education and more on mocking people with the gall to admit that racism exists.
Two recent Princeton graduates wrote, in support of the Department of Education’s investigation, that “the DoE had no choice but to act on the investigative trolling opportunity of a lifetime.”
To insist that the administration’s best use of time and resources is to investigate Princeton for civil rights violations that authors do not believe exist solely to “troll” shows flagrant disregard for actual civil rights violations. The Civil Rights Act is not a joke and the Trump administration should not use it to attack universities attempting to pursue racial equity. To applaud the degradation of the Civil Rights Act in service of a “gotcha” moment is disgusting.
It is also hard to see the end game with this move. If Princeton is found to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act due to systemic racism, it would follow that the Princeton education — that of a handful of legislators and Supreme Court Justices — is also racist. This would strengthen the claim that racism is institutionalized in America, not weaken it. Of course, the Trump administration is banking on Princeton bending over backward to avoid losing their federal funding, which, according to The Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, would “expos(e) racism claims … as hyperbole.” In other words, the Trump administration is planning on wasting resources to prank Princeton.
A statement by Princeton’s president does not make systemic racism any more or less real. It does not solve the problem outlined by more than 300 of Princeton’s faculty members. But, it’s an imperfect step in the right direction. To expect the president’s administration to avoid treating these messy moments of reckoning as a chance to “troll” at the expense of American taxpayers feels like something we should be able to take for granted, but in Trump’s America, racism was solved in 1964.
Jessie Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.
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