Princeton’s self-incrimination of racism: exact or exaggeration?

by J. Pharoah Doss
For New Pittsburgh Courier

In 2019 Princeton University received the HEED (Higher Education Excellence in Diversity) award. The coveted prize is given annually to U.S. colleges and universities—where diversity and inclusion are woven into the work done every day across their campuses—by the magazine INSIGHT Into Diversity.

Princeton was recognized for their efforts to recruit historically underrepresented and first-generation college students. Princeton’s undergraduate class of 2023 is 49.5 percent American students of color, 24 percent are low-income students, and 16 percent are first-generation college students. The financial package for these students does not require borrowing, it’s built on grants that don’t have to be repaid, and 82 percent of recent seniors graduated from Princeton debt-free. Princeton started a transfer program aimed at “well-prepared students” who are U.S. military veterans and community college students. Princeton University’s mentoring program also provides first-generation and low-income students with mentorship to help them succeed.

Afterwards, Princeton told the press, the university was “extremely proud” to have received a national award for “excellence in diversity and inclusion.” However, one year later, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would investigate Princeton for institutional racism.

What happened?

Well, in May 2020 Nicholas Johnson, a student from Canada, became the first Black valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-year history. Johnson stated that he felt empowered and the honor was significant to him because of “Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery.” Did the Department of Education discover Princeton systemically restricted Black Americans from becoming valedictorians?

Of course not. This was another proud moment for Princeton.

Then, weeks later, on May 25, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, but the initial response to Floyd’s death was unlike anything in the recent past. The officer involved was immediately fired. There was universal condemnation of the officer and a national consensus that the officer committed murder. However, activists, protesters, and, eventually, rioters took to the streets across the country, but these elements weren’t advocating for justice for George Floyd. These elements attempted to extract everything that could be gained from the national consensus and demanded everything from defunding the police, to the resignation of local officials, to the end of capitalist exploitation.

At this point, corporations donated money to social justice causes to avoid being labeled complicit with systemic racism and universities denounced institutional racism to prove they were reckoning with their racist past. But Princeton’s president went further and admitted his university was currently a racist institution.

This forced the Department of Education into action because, by law, schools that receive federal funds can’t be openly racist. The Department of Education informed Princeton’s president from the time he took the position in 2013, Princeton University has repeatedly represented itself to be in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in exchange for over $75 million of taxpayer funds. During this time Princeton made material nondiscrimination and equal opportunity representations to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates. Based on Princeton’s admitted racism the Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances, from 2013 to the present, have been false and in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Department of Education would open an investigation.

In response, Princeton stated that it’s unfortunate the Department of Education believes that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing laws and they look forward to explaining why their statement is consistent with the law. Other universities have criticized the Department of Education for pursuing the Princeton matter, because Princeton’s diversity and inclusion initiatives demonstrate the opposite of what Princeton’s president believes to be true. But the Department of Education is determined to figure out exactly what or who is fraudulent at Princeton.

If Princeton’s president is right about the persistence of racism on his campus, then the university should pay back the money it took from the federal government under false pretenses, plus return the HEED award. But if Princeton’s president was exaggerating so the university could be recognized and admired for their courage to be self-examining, he should resign for seeking false adulation.



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