Princeton’s president isn’t fooling the Black Justice League

I doubt that I agree with the Black Justice League about much. However, I agree with some of what it argues in this statement in response to the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s school of public policy.

I agree that:

1. The Wilson-related name change is a “symbolic gesture” that does not address Princeton’s “racist status quo”;
2. “Diversity training” would not accomplish anything;
3. Princeton’s actions are a “cosmetic change”;
4. Princeton has a racist past and a racist present;
5. Statements by Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber regarding the name change do not appear to be sincere.

I disagree as to the nature of Princeton’s racist present. I believe that, today, Princeton’s racist practices are directed against Asian and Asian-American applicants who, as a group, must meet higher objective standards than members of other groups to gain admission.

As to Eisgruber’s sincerity, the Black Justice League states:

[I]n 2015, you strongly defended Wilson and the idolatry of his legacy at Princeton. In communication with the BJL, you wrote: “[I] agree that [Woodrow] Wilson was racist.” However, you further qualified your statement by quoting A. Scott Berg, a Wilson biographer in saying: “[at] the beginning of the 20th century…Wilson’s racial views were fairly centrist in America.”

This stands in stark contrast to the June 27, 2020 announcement which states: “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. . .Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school.”

It is hard to believe that you so specifically quoted from Wilson’s biographical texts, yet continued to be ignorant to the extent of his racist and vitriolic behavior until recently, a moment in which anti-Black racism has come into stark relief.

(Emphasis added)

Stated differently, Eisgruber decided to drop Wilson’s name from its public policy school because the mob became louder, not because of any new understanding of Wilson’s racism or his times.

Eisgruber tried to explain his change of heart in this Washington Post op-ed. He claimed it was due to Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, which he called a “searing moment in our national history.”

This claim doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Eisgruber has been an adult for four decades. He’s been a Supreme Court law clerk, a law professor, and head of Princeton’s program in law and public affairs. He was Princeton’s president when a committee explored the issue of Wilson’s racism in detail and, of course, he played a role in the deliberations.

How could one event, unrelated to Woodrow Wilson, have transformed Eigruber’s thinking about Wilson and caused him suddenly to perceive an “urgent responsibility to stand firmly against racism and for the integrity and value of black lives”? Hasn’t he long perceived this responsibility?

Suppose Chauvin had called in sick the day he confronted Floyd. Would Woodrow Wilson be less of a racist? Would Eisgruber have found it less urgent “to stand firmly against racism”?

Of course not. But if Chauvin had called in sick, angry Blacks might not have vociferously demanded the the purging of Wilson’s name from Princeton. Surely, that’s what made the difference for Eisgruber.

Unfortunately for Eisgruber, the decision to purge Wilson’s name isn’t making a difference for angry Blacks. Nor should it.

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