What’s Wrong With the Princeton Faculty Letter?

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The following is a special guest post by philosopher Neera K. Badhwar. What’s Wrong? is grateful to Professor Badhwar for her contribution.

Princeton Faculty Demand Censorship

“Anti-Blackness is foundational to America. It plays a role in where we live and where we are welcome. It influences the level of healthcare we receive. It determines the degree of risk we are assumed to pose in contexts from retail to lending and beyond. It informs the expectations and tactics of law-enforcement. Anti-Black racism has hamstrung our political process. It is rampant in even our most “progressive” communities. And it plays a powerful role at institutions like Princeton, despite declared values of diversity and inclusion.”

So begins a letter dated July 4th, 2020 to the administration signed by over 350 faculty members from the hard sciences, math, humanities, and social sciences at Princeton University. It proposes various measures to combat racism, including a committee to address discrimination in the classroom “in line with student demands”. It encourages anti-racist student activism and asks for “a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies”. The letter also proposes not allowing departments to hire anyone if they can’t show “a concerted effort” to hire faculty of color.

Most radically, the letter proposes the constitution of a committee of faculty members to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty”, and another faculty committee to come up with “Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication”.

Why are Princeton faculty presumed incapable of avoiding racism in their research and publication on their own? And why do they have to be told what counts as racist? After all, there is no committee to tell them what counts as false or badly argued or methodologically unsound. These problems are exposed in discussions with colleagues, in the refereeing process, and in responses to researchers’ publications. The letter doesn’t say why racism can’t be exposed and dealt with in the same way.

Racism is a form of what is more broadly called tribalism: implicitly or explicitly regarding one’s own ethnic or ideological or political or religious group as superior to other such groups. Tribalism is everywhere, betraying its deep roots in human nature. The Han majority’s indifference to the plight of the Uyghurs in China’s ‘re-education’ camps; the attacks on Muslims by Hindus under the present government in India; and, of course, slavery and Jim Crow laws here in the American South. There are also non-lethal examples of tribalism, such as mutual professional disdain between (some) economists and (some) philosophers.

The Princeton letter doesn’t define racism, but definitions can be gleaned from various dictionaries and everyday usage. The belief that one’s own race is inherently superior to other races is one form of racism. In this sense, it’s hard to believe that any faculty member at Princeton or elsewhere in the United States is a racist, although of course it’s possible that a few are. In current usage, racism is any race-based disparity in outcome due to explicit or implicit prejudice now or in the past. It’s quite plausible that many people, including faculty, harbor some implicit racism in their attitudes.

Implicit racism is not harmless. Researchers’ implicit racism can influence which research they take seriously, which arguments they find plausible, and even which conclusion they endorse. For example, someone with implicit racism is more likely to believe the few studies showing an absence of police prejudice against blacks than the many dozens of studies showing the opposite. He is also more likely to simply ignore research showing that the federal government legally enforced housing segregation post WWII (Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America).

But why do Princeton faculty need a special committee to oversee “the investigation and discipline of racist … research, and publication”? And why does this special committee require another special committee to provide “[g]uidelines on what counts as racist … research, and publication”? Racism, after all, is not an esoteric doctrine requiring to be interpreted and explained to faculty by the anointed few. It’s hard to imagine that the committee will end up doing anything but chill speech and honest research. After all, if you give a committee – or individual – the power to wield a hammer, a lot of things will start looking like nails.

Consider the study of the Houston police force by Roland Fryer, a black economist at Harvard, who argued that the data show that although blacks and Hispanics are “more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police,” he found “no racial differences” in shootings by police (https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/full/10.1086/701423).

Would this study pass the special committee’s investigation? Maybe, maybe not. After all, the author is black, and disciplining him for it might seem – well, racist. Would it pass the committee’s investigation if Fryer were white? It’s hard to imagine that it would. If such a study by a white man is not immediately suspect, what is? At Michigan State University, Stephen Hsu, a non-black (Asian) Vice-President and professor of physics, was asked to step down from his Vice-Presidentship partly for interviewing MSU Psychology professor Joe Cesario, who co-authored a study showing that who is shot, black or white, does not vary by the race of the police officer (https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-twitter-mob-takes-down-an-administrator-at-michigan-state-11593106102). The GEU (Graduate Employee Union) alleged that he was a racist and, with the support of many professors, demanded that he step down as Vice-President. In spite of a counter-petition signed by many more professors, the President asked Hsu to step down.

Again, what exactly will be the task of a committee supposed to address discrimination in the classroom “in line with student demands”? Anything students demand? What gives students the ability to define or detect discrimination that escapes their professors? Student activists who make the news haven’t shown much discernment. For one thing, they don’t seem to know the difference between using a racialized word and mentioning it in a discussion or quotation (although in fairness it must be acknowledged that a lot of adults evidently don’t either). An instructor at UCLA is in trouble for reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud in class, because it contains the n-word (https://www.wsj.com/articles/americas-jacobin-moment-11592867349?mod=opinion_lead_pos1).  A brilliant professor at the New School, Laurie Sheck, was called out for asking students why they thought that a documentary about James Baldwin titled “I Am Not Your Negro” had changed the n-word that Baldwin himself had used (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/15/white-professor-investigated-quoting-james-baldwin-use-of-n-word-laurie-sheck). When Sheck asked the objecting student why she objected to Sheck uttering that word, the student replied that she had been told by another professor that a white person should never use it. Reason enough!

Student activists also don’t seem to understand the meaning of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. It has become increasingly common to call all speech that someone doesn’t like dangerous. In 2017, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent students an email urging them to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costumes. Many students found this frustrating and complained to The Master and Associate Master of Silliman College. The latter, Erika Christakis, sent an email to Sillimanders saying, “American universities were once a safe space … for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition” –  from above, she added. She advised students to decide on their Halloween costumes themselves, and to discuss matters with each other if they found some costume offensive. The result was a protest by a mass of students that the advice in the email was ‘dangerous’, because it expected students to ‘confront’ each other. Nicholas Christakis’ meeting with the students ended with a student screaming in his face that he and his wife were supposed to make them feel “safe”, but instead had made them feel ‘unsafe’, so they should step down from their positions. Fortunately, the Yale University administration defended the Christakisis.

Suppose, however, that the Princeton faculty’s plea for special committees to oversee and punish racist research is justified. What justifies stopping there? After all, the sources of bias are many. For example, liberals dominate elite Universities, and liberals are biased against conservatives (and vice versa). Liberals are unlikely to seriously consider the studies showing an absence of racial bias in American police, or racism in the housing policies of Democratic Presidents and Governors post WWII. So shouldn’t there be a special committee to investigate and discipline anti-conservative research and publication, and another special committee to provide guidelines on what counts as anti-conservative?

We can keep going. Special committees to define and discipline Anti-Semitic research? Sexist research? Anti-LGBTQ research? Anti-cis prejudice? Anti-Southern bias?

Fryer’s research has been criticized for using reports on shootings by police written by the police themselves (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2016/07/14/why-its-impossible-to-calculate-the-percentage-of-police-shootings-that-are-legitimate). It has also been criticized for various methodological errors. All this scholarly exchange and learning would have been short-circuited if the kind of committee some Princeton faculty are calling for had prevented its publication for seemingly exonerating the police and blaming their victims. What the committee would accomplish is censorship and bitter battles over allegedly racist claims, words, phrases, or actions from a rapidly evolving Text of Racism. Already, one of the two Princeton faculty members who dissented from the demand for censorship has been branded a racist for doing so (https://quillette.com/2020/07/08/a-declaration-of-independence-by-a-princeton-professor/).

It’s bad enough that accusations of discrimination and racism are being exchanged indiscriminately in the general culture. University faculty and students ought not to fall for it in the name of combating racism. Combating racism does not require faculty, in John McWhorter words, to “infantilize” blacks by being “exquisitely sensitive” about their feelings, nor is such infantilization helpful to that cause  (see John McWhorter’s review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility). Combating racism requires approaching issues with an open mind, especially issues that challenge our preconceptions. It requires rational argument and the desire for truth. And freedom of speech is still the best path to the goal of rational argument and truth.

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