Does the plasticity of “racism” give Princeton a way out?

The Department of Education has called on Princeton to explain how its certifications that it doesn’t discriminate on account of race can be reconciled with its president’s admission that damaging racism is embedded at the university. At Hot Air, Allahpundit offers a creative way of trying to thread the needle.

He suggests that it all depends on which of the two meanings of “racism” one employs. Traditionally, the word means denying someone “a particular benefit or opportunity on the basis of race.” But as used by Princeton, “racism” has a different meaning. It’s something that occurs due to “unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies,” in the words of Christopher Eisgruber, the university’s president.

Accordingly, Princeton might argue that by acknowledging that racism persists at the university, Eisgruber did not concede that discrimination — the denial of benefits or opportunities on account of race — occurs.

Actually, “racism” has many more than two meanings — so many meanings, in fact, that the word has become meaningless. It is used to attack people whose positions on racial issues one disagrees with, to appease aggressive protesters, to excuse failures to meet reasonable standards, and so forth. It is a discussion stopper with as many meanings as there are kinds of discussions people want to stop.

But the plasticity of the word “racism” does not offer Princeton a valid way out of its current fix. That’s because Eisgruber’s admission, if true, establishes discrimination.

Eisgruber said that racism at Princeton is embedded and damaging. This means that it is harming black students. If black students are subjected to harm that white students aren’t, then they are being discriminated against in the traditional sense of being denied an opportunity on the basis of race — the opportunity to attend college without being damaged on account of their race.

Under well-established law, employers discriminate if black or female employees work in a “hostile” environment. Having to labor in such an environment is harmful and disadvantageous. By the same reasoning, it’s harmful and disadvantageous — and therefore discriminatory — for black students to attend a college where the environment is hostile.

If damaging racism is embedded at a college, as Princeton’s president has admitted, black students are disadvantaged by a racist environment. This means black students are discriminated against, which means Princeton’s representations that it doesn’t discriminate were false.

Princeton’s black students (or at least some of them) seem to feel they are harmed by the “racist” environment at the university. Presumably, that’s why they have occupied Eisgruber’s office and made all sorts of demands.

As part of its investigation, I trust the Department of Education will interview black Princeton students. A proper investigation of discrimination entails talking to those who may have been victimized.