Micah Herskind | First published at The Daily Princetonian | 4/7/19
Editor’s Note: This article represents the views and opinions of the author only and does not necessarily represent the views of The Daily Princetonian. President Eisgruber has answered the questions of “Ban the Box” campaigners in meetings that the ‘Prince’ has covered; more information can be found in our coverage of CPUC meetings.
University administrators have an incredibly hard time calling something racist, and Princeton University’s own President Eisgruber is no exception. In fact, as a recent interaction with student activists demonstrates, he’s part of the problem.
Last Monday, members of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) — myself included — confronted President Eisgruber about his insistence on retaining the “box” regarding a criminal record on Princeton’s application despite the Common Application’s decision to remove the box this past summer, and the many arguments against its preservation.
The interaction began when a SPEAR member asked how President Eisgruber could reconcile his decision to protect the “box” with the overwhelming evidence of the criminal justice system’s racism and classism. Indeed, ours is a penal system that is 40 percent black and 60 percent people of color, and composed of people who have an average income 41 percent lower than “non-incarcerated people of similar ages.”
In response to the question, President Eisgruber recycled a potpourri of sterilized, administrative terms:
“We use a holistic admissions process for all of our students, which takes into account a wide variety of information. That can include information that might create [a] negative impression. It also enables our Dean of Admission and the others who are on the admission committee to evaluate that information in the context of a student’s entire record.”
We hoped Eisgruber’s response would say something; instead, it screamed nothing. Indeed, for a man who pointedly assigned a book about campus free speech in the wake of a white professor using the n-word, President Eisgruber’s language is strikingly vague. “Holistic admissions process,” “wide variety of information,” “enables our Dean … to evaluate.” What?
The heart of the matter, as we then explained to President Eisgruber, is this: when we say we want to keep the box, we’re saying that we know that the criminal punishment system is a warehouse for poor black people and other poor people of color. We also think this system has valuable — perhaps crucial — information to offer Princeton University. Why, we asked President Eisgruber, is the University working so hard to preserve this information?
To this, President Eisgruber responded, “I appreciate that there’s a disagreement here,” as if the leader of the nation’s premier research university did not know the difference between a disagreement and sheer denial of the scholarship produced by professors at our own university and elsewhere.
“Is there a disagreement that the system is racist and classist?” we asked. A pause, and response: “I have actually responded to that allegation in previous meetings, so I’m not going to simply continue to respond to the same statements.” As the exchange continued, an exasperated Eisgruber assured us that he would not give us an answer — he would not call the system racist, nor would he call it not racist — and that we could refer to the carefully-kept minutes and Daily Princetonian coverage of past Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meetings.
I went through the CPUC records from the last two years. There’s no record of any answer to this question, nor any statement to indicate Eisgruber’s beliefs on racism. In one meeting, Eisgruber indicated his openness to restructuring the box “in ways that may mitigate some of the negative effects” and in another he hoped to “ask the question better so that it mitigates some of the detriments” — two overwhelmingly milquetoast references to racism, if that’s even what they were.
If I’ve learned one thing from Princeton’s administrators, it’s that language is one of the most effective tools in any cover-up job. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written, “language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it.” Benign language, Adichie explains, erases violent impact. Such is the case in Princeton’s response to the “ban the box” movement, wherein administrative language continues to disguise racism and conceal meaning.
For example, why would President Eisgruber say that the University is more worried about the legal liability that stems from admitting a student with a criminal record than it is about challenging racism, when he could instead assure us that Princeton uses a “holistic admissions process?” Why say that the University would rather rely on racist systems than open itself to bad publicity, when he could point to the Dean’s evaluation of “a number of positive indicia and evidence?”
University administrators have an incredibly hard time calling something racist. They work tirelessly to find words that soften the blow of racism, or better yet, that erase racism’s appearance altogether.
To be clear, calling something racist is different than acknowledging race. Indeed, those in power are at their most creative when finding ways to speak around racism. Ask an administrator how to avoid calling something racist, and you’ll want to bring a pen: sometimes “a product of racial bias,” other times “racially tinged;” in some cases “the hold-over of a problematic past,” in others “likely a result of some people with racist attitudes;” or, in one of our blander inventions, “containing elements of racial discrimination.”
In short, by thoroughly cleansing his language of racism, scrubbing away any direct link between the carceral state and racial oppression — unless you count his watered-down version of events acknowledging “various kinds of bias” in society — President Eisgruber has continually proven just how many words can be used to say absolutely nothing.
Why am I targeting President Eisgruber, who is merely the head of an operation that traffics in exclusion? Indeed, it’s rarely productive to single out individuals as the cause of problematic dynamics; though it might appear to be a chicken, Princeton is undoubtedly a hydra. In the case of banning the “box,” however, the decision ultimately falls with President Eisgruber alone.
And yet, as someone who could unilaterally begin to disentangle Princeton from the criminal punishment system, Princeton’s president is going to extraordinary lengths to rescue racist institutions from themselves. Where we need a bulldozer, President Eisgruber has brought a chisel, determined with all his might to carve a non-racist face out of a racist mountainside.
To be sure, banning the box won’t solve the problem. Criminalization is pervasive and corrosive, and admitting formerly incarcerated students won’t bring about the system’s demise. But it’s one tangible step Princeton University can take to begin combatting its record of injustice. That, alongside a commitment to stop burying meaning in meaningless words, and to say for once what has long needed to be said: the criminal punishment system is racist, and Princeton University’s involvement with it makes Princeton racist as well.
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