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Princeton University is One of the Least Racist Institutions in the World

Reflecting on recent events in Princeton starting with the July 4th “Faculty Letter” to the president, Professor Joshua Katz’s reply in his Declaration of Independence, and all the brouhaha it has generated, I cannot help noticing the asymmetry of the situation. In today’s demonology, no epithets are more noxious than “racist” and “white supremacist.” They have largely replaced the previous most damning insults, “fascist” and “Nazi.” The epithet “terrorist” is also pretty high on the list, though less frequently used, and “Communist” never carried the same negative weight, at least not in academia, despite the mass killings and innumerable other crimes perpetrated by Communist regimes. The July 4th “Faculty Letter,” and the many ensuing declarations of support for it, accuse Princeton University of systemic racism and propose an array of measures to fix the problem—48 of them in total, which, if fully implemented, would radically transform and irreversibly wreck our university. Some of these recommendations are themselves overtly racist, such as giving special privileges to some faculty based on the color of their skin.

In his declaration of independence published in Quillette, Katz, a chaired professor in the Classics department, defends the importance of free speech in academia and accuses the authors of the letter of trying to impose unreasonable changes at Princeton. But because he used the word “terrorist” to describe the campus activities of the defunct Black Justice League, he was immediately accused of racism at Princeton.

Katz’s letter, which received widespread acclaim in the media, was almost universally condemned on our campus, including by the president and the administrative leadership of the Classics department. Though the president, to his credit, was careful not to assume a racist motivation and also to defend Katz’s right to speak, the others, in particular four executive officers of his own department, were not so circumspect. On the other hand, with the notable exception of Katz, nobody has condemned the signatories of the July 4th letter for their accusation of systemic racism at Princeton.

This awful accusation is in no way consistent with the experience of most of us. Together with all other academic institutions in the US, Princeton is today a model for the diversity of both its faculty and its student body. A cursory look at campus demographics will show that people of color, a category that includes Indians and Pakistanis, as well as Chinese and other people of East-Asian origin, make up a much higher proportion of the campus population than their representation in the US population. Those charging Princeton University with “white supremacy” never explain how their accusation is compatible with this reality.

In my own department, Mathematics, both the faculty and graduate students are recruited from all over the world with absolutely no regard for any other criteria beyond excellence in research, scholarship, and teaching. If anything, the process produces a shockingly small number of US-born faculty—at my counting less than 15 percent. Our department has for years been credited as the top Mathematics department in the US and probably in the world. I very much doubt that we could maintain that position if we introduced a quota policy for US citizens to counter their lack of proportional representation in our program.

In recruiting students and faculty from all over, irrespective of race, color, religion, ethnicity, etc., we must be fully confident that they have not only talent and enthusiasm, but also a sufficiently strong grounding in the subject to compete with the best math wizards from all over the world. There is no reason to believe that students of color or US-born faculty cannot meet this requirement—in fact, a great many do. But when we fail to make sure that our standards are fully met, we do more harm than good.

This is especially true for students. Nothing is sadder and more preventable than to see the enthusiasm of a talented young student waning away in a competitive environment where he or she is not fully prepared to compete. We sometime err in taking risks with students in whom we invest hope despite a record that does not give us full confidence of success. When they fail to thrive in our highly competitive program they suffer lasting harm. The truth is that in a more nurturing and only slightly less competitive program than ours, those students may have excelled.

As a Jew who grew up in Communist Romania and whose parents lived through the worst excesses of Nazi-dominated Europe, I have a great sensitivity and complete disdain for racial and ethnic prejudice. Yet I challenge anybody who has signed the July 4th letter to show me even one racist or white supremacist colleague on Princeton’s faculty or in its administration. I don’t know of a single colleague who is not eager to recruit more African American students (especially graduate students) and faculty.

The wild accusation of structural racism and anti-blackness appears to be based only on the statistical under-representation of African Americans at Princeton. The statistics are true, but I strongly dispute that they have anything to do with racism. If those who signed the July 4th letter are honest about their desire to solve the under-representation problem, I suggest they do something meaningful and redirect their attention to the dismal state of our urban schools. Instead of asking for special perks for some faculty based on race, they could instead ask for funds for any student who wants to volunteer to improve the pre-college education for US minorities. In his new book Charter Schools and Their Enemies, Thomas Sowell points out that some of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City, with mainly black and Hispanic students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, have achieved levels of success comparable to or higher than some of the top schools in the state, public or private. If that claim is true, which I have no doubt it is, shouldn’t Princeton direct part of its considerable resources, financial as well as moral, toward supporting such charter schools nationally?

In a personal letter sent to President Eisgruber several weeks ago, I suggested that Princeton lead by example by calling for a “University-wide celebration of freedom of speech at Princeton in which people representing different points of view engage in reasoned and respectful discussion and debate the most pressing issues facing the nation,” including that of the under-representation of African Americans in the Ivy League. I have not had a response, but I am still hoping that the administration will heed my call.

I want to end by condemning in the strongest possible terms the spurious accusation of racism at Princeton. At best, the accusation is gravely misdirected. At worst, it shows its own racial animus towards all who do not agree with the world view of the signatories of the July 4th letter, pointing to their “whiteness” as an explanation for their alleged bias. I doubt that most of those who signed that letter intended that and hope that, upon reflection, they will withdraw their signatures from a document which, however well-intentioned, is deeply misguided and will be judged harshly by history.


Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton.

Photo by Christian Lambert on Unsplash


  1. "As a Jew who grew up in Communist Romania and whose parents lived through the worst excesses of Nazi-dominated Europe, I have a great sensitivity and complete disdain for racial and ethnic prejudice. Yet I challenge anybody who has signed the July 4th letter to show me even one racist or white supremacist colleague on Princeton’s faculty or in its administration. "

    I think you’ll be waiting a long, long, long time for someone to meet your challenge, Professor.

  2. “Yet I challenge anybody who has signed the July 4th letter to show me even one racist or white supremacist colleague on Princeton’s faculty or in its administration.”

    That’s actually a very good idea. Certainly, the white faculty members who signed the letter should be pressed to identify by name any faculty member they believe to be a racist or a white supremicist.

    And if they refuse do it, they should be subject to discipline for shielding racists on the faculty.

    Alinsky’s sixth rule.

  3. Except “systemic racism” is designed specifically to circumvent the need to identify someone as overtly racist.

    Heads they win, tails you’re still a racist.

  4. I applaud this courageous article. Well done. What I especially loved about it is how it clearly defends Free Speech and specifically mentions Free Speech for everyone. This is not something we see very often these days from elite colleges.

  5. I disagree strongly with this. Racism cannot exist without intention. That is the truth of things. If you try to sidestep that truth with mumbo jumbo then you denude language of its meaning and delete understanding from the world.

    If instead of using the bogey word ‘‘racism’’ you instead said somehting like certain systems can lead to disparate outcomes for black people, then I guaranteee that you would get 95% of the population to help clear up the problem whilst maintaining the integrity of the system.

  6. We have, in the United States, a vast poor white population that will never make it to college and certainly not Princeton. You can bet that the underprivileged black student will be selected over the underprivileged white student. If there is any racism at Princeton, it’s that. Note the mention in the article, too, that faculty over color dominate over whites. This is the racism at Princeton. But this is not the racism that the letter purports to repair.

    Someone close to me disagreed that there is no systemic racism. She agrees that the country is “anti-black.” Interestingly enough, we are researching the year 1990 in New York City. This involves footage after footage of “black bodies” being shunted into ambulances. Mentioning this to anyone will invite the accusation that this is “a racist talking point.” Oh how Orwellian that accusation is. Because the numbers of black men killing black men are astonishing. The gang culture is toxic. It is practically impossible to avoid. It requires dispassionate killing and raping, according to numerous primary sources that I have examined. In 1990, a black male had less than 40% chance of making it to age 30. This is the so-called “pipeline to prison,” the logical leap made in The Thirteenth. (Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could believe it is due to a “system” configured by whitey when we all know the prevalence of gang culture in the inner cities.) It starts as young as 11 and by 15 they will have received their first prison sentence for robbery or even murder. There is less than zero interest in becoming hedge fund managers in this cohort. Considering that blacks make up 15% of the population, much of that population occupying the inner city, what you have is the bulk of a population for whom Princeton would be a form of hell, because they couldn’t be less interested.

    All of this hue and cry over racism is white narcissism at its finest. It’s a form of white supremacy. Why aren’t WE doing enough for them? Why aren’t we doing it for everyone? Why are black Americans a white project? Even more to the point, it’s an insistence that we are against their presence in our institutions with very little awareness that people are different. They have different interests, values, and goals and for a large percentage of black males, their preferred status is gangster. Let’s face it. And, after examining it, I can sort of see the anti-heroic appeal.

  7. This one I can kind of actually go with you on, but not because what you’re saying is actually racism, but because this ties into the lack of school choice. Charter schools is the one issue where you could actually make the case for systemic racism. But the Democrats don’t want it for some crazy reason (:sneezing_face: teachers’ union :sneezing_face:) . Apparently Democrats still like segregation, which is pretty obvious given their fanaticism of identity politics - which is just modern day segregation. But, I digress. As much as I don’t like government-run, publicly-funded programs, charter schools and school choice is something I’m actually okay with.

  8. And here we have the precise reason that the phrase “systemic racism” has indeed passed its sell-by date.

    The concept @K_Dershem is describing is a classically valid definition utilizing the word “racism”. Some disparity of outcomes could be considered racist even in the absence of any intent.

    However in fairness to the other posters, this concept has been almost entirely stripped from the word, and neither the Left nor the Right embrace it. So to that end, it is also fair to be baffled at calling something racist when no racism is intended.

    As I said, while the Left will use the phrase “systemic racism” they are not using the older definition either. Case in point, Kurt correctly points out that being black has a strong correlation with poverty. And those coming from poverty tend to have worse educational outcomes. I do not think anyone here disagrees.

    And here is where the Left and the also Right agree. Both sides now believe that the accusation of “Racism” must have a target that can be demonized and shamed. This is why most of the commenters on the Right are aghast at the idea that racism can exist without intent. While on the left it is why “Princeton is racist”. The notion that early schooling in poor neighborhoods does not well prepare one for an Ivy League education largely removes the ability to point fingers with the accusation. At least it does outside a conversation about reparations.

    Which is why I personally tend to use these words as they are used on the Left. It facilitates communication.

    Otherwise you get what you have here. Most of the commenters here would agree that expanding opportunities for the lower social economic brackets should be done without taking skin color into account (including @K_Dershem who has said so in many other posts). However instead arguing over the “correct” definition of the word “racism” has people thinking they disagree with each other.

  9. It’s a good argument. But it has a flaw. Drug enforcement of the sale of drugs is not aimed at reducing the wholesale or retail distribution of drugs- or at least not primarily, when looking at the role of local law enforcement. The primary purpose of drug enforcement at a local level is to punish the unregulated market, when drug dealing results in deaths- either through the sale of bad drugs or through the violence associated with some gang activity.

    Take the recent London (and UK) knife crime epidemic. I’m sure a detailed study of gang composition across the Greater London area would find significant patches of gang populations that are substantially white in composition. But these aren’t the areas that grab the headlines or require Police response. Given the nature of the crimes and the suspect pools they involve it is almost impossible to get conviction rates for murders that are above 20%.

    The only realistic policy is to take the average earnings of a gang member in New York down from a thousand dollars a day to less than two hundred. This is done by focusing police anti-drug interdictions wherever intelligence shows the likely perpetrators of violence are based. This may lead to accusations by communities who feel ‘overpoliced, but underprotected’, but it is the only way for police themselves to take action on the issue. If you’re looking for somebody to blame for racial bias in policing, you should look to local political leadership, who are often too weak to admit there is a problem in certain communities, or take steps to institute reform-based solutions which might backfire upon them politically.

  10. The problem with the Left, especially academia, is that it has become hopelessly out of touch. The problems and issues the Left perceives and the solutions that it foresees bear no relationship to the actual reality on the ground.

    An solution example that frequently appears on this site is as follows:

    Issue: Raising livestock more humanely.

    Leftist solution: People should be willing to pay more for humanely raised meat.

    This proposed solution totally over looks the segment of the population currently purchasing Hamburger Helper and Potted Meat.

    This is what comes from living in a bubble, a lack of diversity of opinion and why the phrase “limousine liberal” is so appropriate.

  11. “Schools in the U.S. are primarily funded by local property taxes. Blacks are disproportionately likely to live in impoverished urban areas…”

    As opposed to those excellent Prep schools in Appalachia.

  12. Reminds me of a great expose in the Wall Street Journal about the Leftists’ Occupy Wall Street movement.

    They called the series something like Econ 101 for Occupiers.

    One of the articles described an instance where a NYU student was staying in a commune tent, protesting evil Wall Street by day and writing about her transformative experience fighting for the ‘99 percent’ on her $5,000 student Macbook at night.

    One day she returned from demonstrating against the “Haves” and found her Macbook was stolen. Not one person in the tent would fess up about taking it.

    She was furious! How dare they! Didn’t they know she was a poor NYU student with a $5,000 Macbook fighting for the cause?

    The irony was lost on her that someone in her tent saw her as one of the “Haves” (expensive education at a premiere institution with a very expensive Macbook) and they were a “Have Not” without that education or Macbook. So they relieved her of her Unearned Privilege.

    The lesson for would-be Leftist professors hopping on their totalitarianism train to destruction (such as by signing the July 4th ‘Faculty Letter’): There will always be someone in the movement who is less well-off than you (in wealth, prestige, power, etc) who is jealous, and would gladly take everything away that you’ve worked hard for and earned. And they will find any intersectionalist category that works against you to do so. Do stupid things, win stupid prizes.

  13. I have a colleague at the college where I teach who claims to be a Socialist. I asked him if he planned to forego the extra pay we receive for working on non-duty days. Guess what he said?

  14. Regarding institutional racism: The United States abolished slavery. The U.S. enacted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to make the Bill of Rights applicable to the States. The U.S. ended segregation, enacted the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Theses were some of the measures under taken to address institutional racism.

    So what is the proposed solution to alleged systemic racism. Same solution the Left always proposes, income redistribution. Apparently throwing money at issues solves all problems or perhaps it doesn’t as it has been tried religiously for the last 50 years.

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