How will Princeton, having admitted that damaging, systemic racism is embedded at the university, explain to the Department of Education that it was being truthful when it said Princeton does not discriminate on the basis of race? We can see the shape of a possible response in the statement Princeton issued upon receiving the Education Department’s demand for an explanation.
Princeton seems to be saying that the “systemic racism” at Princeton is the “continued effect” of “racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society.” In this account, Princeton’s letter acknowledging racism and discussing ways to combat it is an attempt at “grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism,” not an admission of discrimination by Princeton itself.
Is this a satisfactory defense? I don’t think so.
Suppose a manufacturer admitted that damaging systemic racism is embedded at its plant. It would not be much of a defense to say that the racism of the plant is a byproduct of racism that persists throughout society. An institution cannot duck responsibility that easily.
The same would be true of a manufacturer that admitted its factory is a hostile work environment for female employees. It would not be sufficient to blame the hostile treatment of women — in other words, the sexual harassment — on societal sexism in general or the long history of treating women as sex objects in particular.
This line of defense would be even less persuasive if, like Princeton’s president, the management team at the factory had been in place for years and had only now confessed to racism or sexism and implemented new measures to combat it.
If racism at Princeton consisted only of some students and professors holding racist views they kept to themselves, this would not mean that Princeton violated its duty under federal law not to discriminate. But Princeton confessed to much more than this. It admitted that the racism at Princeton does “damage” to “people of color” at the university.
When systemic, embedded racism does damage to members of a minority group, the damaged individuals are discriminated against. Princeton’s black students have the right to attend college without suffering damage due to their race — damage not inflicted on white students.
In reality, Princeton’s black students aren’t at a disadvantage compared to white students. In fact, they enjoy important advantages, including significantly lower admissions standards and a president who panders to many of their demands.
But that’s not how Princeton’s president seems to view the situation, and it’s not what he told the Princeton community. He’s committed to the proposition that black students are suffering due to embedded racism at the university he’s run for seven years.
I don’t think that view can be squared with the non-discrimination representations Princeton has made to the Department of Education or to others. Shifting the blame to society and/or history isn’t going to do the trick.