What the fight is about at Princeton

December 3, 2015

Edna Bonhomme writes from Princeton University about the gains already won by the movement against campus--and about what can be done to take the struggle further.

ON NOVEMBER 18, two hundred students participated in a walkout at Princeton University in New Jersey. Of those, over two dozen members of the Black Justice League went to President Christopher Eisgruber's office and demanded to be heard.

After a hour-long conversation with the administration, the students camped outside Nassau Hall. The persistence of racism on Princeton University's campus was central to their three main demands: 1) Rename institutions that bear the name of the notoriously racist former President Woodrow Wilson; 2) Institute cultural training for faculty and staff; and 3) Create cultural space dedicated to Black students.

Protesters showed their resilience by sleeping outside in the pouring rain for over 30 hours until their demands were heard. By the next day, they were able to reach a compromise with the administration, and Princeton will consider renaming buildings and schools like the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

During this process, students were faced with intimidation and encountered threats of disciplinary action from the administration. In addition, the university warned the Princeton community via e-mail of an anonymous bomb and firearm threat that apparently referenced the student protesters. The bomb threat was later found to be baseless.

The Black Justice League leads protests against racism on and off the Princeton campus
The Black Justice League leads protests against racism on and off the Princeton campus

Nonetheless, with the support of various faculty members in the Department of African American Studies, the Black Justice League was ultimately able to win concessions from the administration.

Eisgruber agreed to "initiate conversations" with the Board of Trustees about removing Wilson's name from campus buildings, to immediately designate four rooms for use by cultural groups, and to look into cultural competency trainings for members of both the faculty and the counseling and psychological services staff.

IN CHALLENGING the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, one of the founders of modern American liberalism, the Black Justice League has done a valuable service. Wilson--a former Princeton University president, New Jersey governor and a two-term U.S. president--is remembered today as a "Progressive Era" president" but he was also a leading racist of his day, who sent troops to occupy Haiti, declaring that Black people were ignorant.

A recent New York Times article posed an important question about whether Wilson's racism was an exception to his liberalism or an inherent part of it. Just as Wilson's history shows that liberalism is not necessarily anti-racist, the liberal language used today by universities like Princeton is often deployed to cover up conditions of inequality and bigotry.

Universities often use terms such as "diversity" and "multicultural" to describe increasingly heterogeneous campuses. Yet these words often whitewash the reality of what it means to be a racial or ethnic minority at institutions that profited from slavery, imperialist war or the prison-industrial complex.

In Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities, Craig Steven Wilder outlines the deep connections to slavery in the early histories of Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary. At Princeton, for example, the first eight presidents were slaveholders.

Many of these universities further justified racism through "scientific" experiments that were meant to show the inferiority of non-white groups. Such history, when it is unveiled, can be the tinder of revolt.

Racism is embedded in the fabric of higher education today. Discrimination is not merely symbolic, but it has material consequences for Black students who go deeper into debt, are less likely to graduate, and are made to feel marginal at their universities.

The global recession coupled with racism means that students of color are particularly vulnerable to financial setbacks. As Mel Jones wrote in The Atlantic:

Wealth inequality can't be discussed without talking about race; within the American context, they are inseparable. So the fact that Millennials of color feel the impact of a precarious financial foundation more acutely is not a surprise. For Black Millennials in particular, studies point to a legacy of discrimination over several centuries that contributed to less inherited wealth passed down from previous generations.

When I began my history doctoral program in 2011 at Princeton University, I was surprised to find that I was the only native-born Black person out of a cohort of 30 students; only eight of us were women.

To be a Black woman at Princeton University is an honor, but it means that I am simultaneously invisible and a spectacle--just one of the many contradictions of attending an institution that actively excluded Black students until the 1940s and women until the late 1960s.

AS KEEANGA-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in an article for Al Jazeera, the Black Lives Matter movement on college campuses has forced administrators to address institutional racism.

Princeton students have shown that suburban New Jersey is not immune to this movement. While these protests might seem to be taking place in isolation, Princeton students have led a series of campaigns over the past five years: the Princeton Committee on Palestine sparked national attention with the Sabra hummus campaign in 2010; Occupy Princeton galvanized students and community members in 2011; and Black students led a collective die-in to honor Black lives in 2014.

The Black Justice League is to be admired for highlighting the ways in which Black students are marginalized and discriminated against. But the group could be furthered enriched if it tried to organize alongside campus workers, from faculty to maintenance.

Students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) issued a statement that points to the importance of linking the student struggle to workers, as well as the demand for free tuition, plus calling for an end to privatization, fossil fuel investment and prison-industrial labor investment.

Similarly, Princeton students could put the divestment question front and center to build solidarity between the struggles against the prison-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry.

What they have already done is point the direction toward a university that is democratic and open to everyone. It is important to excavate the university's past, while offering a radical alternative for its present and future. In a climate of where racism is alive and real, it is important to have direct actions that unite students with university workers and community members.

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