Taking Racism Seriously—And Literally

Let’s talk about Princeton.

Dear Reader (Including this panda eating a carrot),

Some of you may have seen the episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry tries to return a jacket. He says he wants to return it for “spite” because he didn’t care for the salesman who sold it to him. 

He’s told he can’t return a jacket simply for spite. The manager is called in.

Manager: “That's true. You can't return an item based purely on spite.”

Jerry:. “Well So fine then … then I don't want it and then that's why I'm returning it.”

Manager: “Well you already said spite so ..."

Jerry: “But I changed my mind ...”

Manager: “No … you said spite. Too late.”

Princeton University finds itself in a similar scenario. Christopher Eisgruber, the president of the school, wrote in a letter, quite emphatically, that Princeton is systemically racist and that racism is “embedded” at the school:

“Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies,” Eisgruber wrote. “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

In response to this wholly unsolicited confession of profound sin, the Department of Education is opening an investigation into whether or not Princeton has been falsely claiming in official documents that it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race.  “Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” the letter says. “The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made.” (Kudos, by the way, to Tiana Lowe, who broke the story). 

I love this so much I want to rent a limo I can’t afford, take it to the prom, and maybe get a tattoo celebrating my love.   

I’ve been on a tear lately about how much the rhetoric or narratives that define our politics don’t line up very well with reality. Our cities aren’t ablaze, black Americans today aren’t victims of “genocide,” opposing masking protocols doesn’t make you Rosa Parks, Joe Biden isn’t so impaired “he doesn’t even know he’s alive,” protests that are “fiery” aren’t mostly peaceful, Antifa goons aren’t “Biden voters,” Section 230 doesn’t allow Mark Zuckerberg to break into your home and make a sandwich out of your liver, etc.

In general, I don’t think government should be in the business of policing all this stuff. But the situation with Princeton is different. Its officers, presumably including the president, sign legal documents assuring the government that it adheres to all the relevant civil rights laws and regulations. They have whole departments dedicated to such compliance. 

So when Eisgruber announces to the world—in a carefully prepared public letter bearing his signature—that Princeton is a hotbed of “embedded racism,” why shouldn’t the government take him seriously (never mind literally)? If the CEO of, say, McDonald’s, publicly said, “Our factories are systemically unsafe, our burgers full of salmonella,” you might want the USDA to investigate, right? If the head of GE said, “Fraud is embedded in the very structures of our business,” not only would its stock fall like a wet bag of manure onto a concrete floor, but Congress, the SEC, and Lord knows who else would investigate immediately.  

Now, you might say that racism is different from salmonella and fraud—and you’d be right! Any fair interpretation of our national bout of St. Vitus’ Dance over racism would hold that racism is far worse. It’s America’s original sin. It threatens to destroy us as a country. It holds back millions of children from fulfilling their potential. It’s an unalloyed evil, not just in some abstract sense, but something that gets people killed—not just at the hands of police, but in our health care system. The fight against racism was so important, many leading epidemiologists declared it the great exception to social distancing policies. At least, that’s what MSNBC tells me every day.  (And I’m not saying there’s no truth to any of that, I’m just saying the truth is wildly exaggerated.)

So when the president of arguably the best university in the country says that his school is shot through with racism—some of it intentional—why shouldn’t we take it seriously? 

The racism Catch-22.

This is the Seinfeldian dilemma Princeton finds itself in. Eisgruber wants to pander to a constituency and a quasi-religious culture that demands self-abasement and confession to the sin of racism. But he doesn't want Princeton to be held to account for it—not in any serious legal way.   I can’t wait for Princeton’s lawyers to argue, in effect, “Did we say racist? We take that back.” And, then Betsy DeVos gets to reply, “It’s too late. You said ‘racist’ so …”

The free speech defense, by the way, doesn’t really work: Under the law, you can’t admit to violations of the law—“I murdered someone!”—and then hide behind free speech when the government takes you at your word. 

Princeton’s problem is the problem at the heart of so much of the whole systemic racism debate (and so many others). Rhetorically, the crisis of racism is at an 11 on a 1-10 scale. But in reality, the problem is lower (reasonable people can debate how much lower). Don’t believe me? Earlier this month, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka was widely praised for saying, “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.”

Genocide? Like the Rape of Nanking or the Holocaust? Really? Even if you take the broadest estimates of unjustified police homicides and quintuple them, you are still barely past the starting line in the marathon-length race to the standard of “genocide.”

The Department of Education is demanding all sorts of documents from Princeton, and you can be sure that, if produced, there will be precious little concrete evidence that Princeton is racist. And, if any evidence of racism is produced, it is far more likely to be proof of the kind of discrimination Harvard is almost surely guilty of: anti-Asian bias. 

And here’s the thing: That’s good news! Not the Asian discrimination obviously, but the fact that evidence is so scarce. So much of the rhetoric around racism contends that “nothing has changed,” or even that the problem is worse than ever. That is just flatly untrue. Princeton was very racist, but things have changed. The very regulations that the DoE wants to enforce—and that Princeton has surely complied with—are evidence of that. The best thing you can say about the current obsession with racism is that it demonstrates how much our tolerance for it has decreased over the years. 

Think of child labor—not, like, for your own pleasure or anything, but as a historical phenomenon. When child labor was normal and widespread, very few people denounced it because it was normal and widespread. As we grew more prosperous and enlightened, the barbarity of the practice became less defensible, eventually becoming indefensible and, finally, illegal. Now, opposition to child labor has become dogmatic (in the best sense of the word), and even a little offends almost everyone. That’s how progress works. 

Again, I’m not sure I want the government to get involved in holding people accountable for their irresponsible rhetoric. This Princeton case is a special circumstance. But in general, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing because everyone is losing their goddamn minds buying into rhetorical bullshit as if it accurately described the real world we live in. 

The COVID crackdown.

Bill Barr is getting a lot of grief for, well, a lot of things. I still think a lot of criticisms of Barr are exaggerated, but I’m done trying to defend him because he seems so determined to go out of his way to invite criticism. And some of his conduct has been bad. The attorney general is supposed to care about the appearance of his conduct, and he seems perfectly willing to appear like a partisan personal lawyer for the president. He may be right about some of the problems with the Justice Department—I think he is—but he’s creating a problem as well. If Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch crossed the line of propriety—I think they did—so has Barr. 

But that’s not what I want to talk about. In his Hillsdale remarks, Barr said:

“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s—you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

This is already ripening into a conservative talking point. Though I will say that Hugh Hewitt does a pretty good job of cleaning up Barr’s remarks.  But even so, there’s still a mess. Hugh writes:

But the lockdown, in terms of pure numbers, given how much bigger our country is, is other than slavery the most numerous imposition on people's individual liberty. 

I have a few problems with this. 

First, it should be noted that there is no “national lockdown.” Whatever lockdowns there are have been imposed at the state and local level. Ironically, if there had been a “national lockdown,” it would be Donald Trump who would have been responsible for what Barr calls the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history” -- other than slavery. 

Second, as Hewitt basically concedes, numerical imposition is kind of a dumb standard. The internment of the Japanese was qualitatively much worse than a pandemic lockdown. But if we’re going to parse statements, it’s not true that the “national lockdown” comes in second only to slavery. In 1860, when the slave population reached its height, there were just under 4 million slaves and 500,000 free blacks in the U.S. So why would the “national lockdown” come in second to slavery when it affected roughly 330 million Americans? If numerical imposition is a serious standard, the “national lockdown” is number one and slavery isn’t even second. The abuses of civil liberties under Woodrow Wilson probably affected more people in sheer numbers than slavery did. Heck, mandatory seat belts, helmet laws, mandatory vaccines, etc., surely affect more than 4 million people. 

But that’s the point: It’s not a serious standard. I’m not saying that the various lockdowns and other inconveniences imposed by government at any level aren’t impositions on civil liberties. But when you compare the response to a pandemic—for all its easily conceded flaws—to slavery, Jim Crow, or the internment of Japanese Americans, you are making a moral analogy that doesn’t work logically—or morally. 

As I’ve written here many times, pandemics are one of the few exceptions to the regular order of liberty in classical liberal political theory. During war, national disasters, and pandemics, government has a right and obligation to do what is necessary for the general welfare and the safety of the citizenry. If a policeman commandeers your car to stop a terrorist, that’s not in any way equivalent to a policeman who steals your car so he can have fun in Vegas. George Washington ordered quarantines to fight yellow fever. I shouldn’t have to explain that inconveniencing citizens to fight a plague is qualitatively different than locking up innocent Americans to fight the “Yellow Peril.”

Saying “except for slavery” while talking about lockdowns—that were conducted in compliance with the Trump administrations guidelines by the way —sneaks in a bogus moral and legal standard that doesn’t apply to public health measures. 

If it was just a bad argument or poor communication, that would be one thing. But this whole push to turn the COVID response into a great moral struggle in the name of civil rights is grossly irresponsible. By name-checking slavery, Barr is insinuating that the two things are on the same moral spectrum at least to some degree. I don’t think he believes that—it’s pretty clear he doesn’t. But he does want people to believe there is some shared quality of illegitimacy at work. And there isn’t. At all.

You’d think an administration that preaches “nationalism” and “America First” at every turn would want to promote real national unity and scientific consistency to its response. They chose to go through door number 2. Trump spent the summer tweeting “Liberate Michigan!” and similar nonsense. Just this week, he suggested that his performance should be judged by the death toll “if you take the blue states out.” I’m all in favor of beating up Cuomo and anybody else who mishandled the pandemic, but either the president is responsible for the national response or he’s not. He can’t cherry-pick successes and suggest “I did that” while cherry-picking failures and say “that was them.” I mean, he’s perfectly happy to include jobs created in blue states when the employment numbers come out. 

“America First! … Except for the most populated states that didn’t vote for me” is one funky kind of nationalism, if you ask me. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls are still enjoying the weather a great deal. But I still think they’re showing their age more and more, especially Pippa. She still insists on leaving the house with a tennis ball in the morning, but she’s less eager to do anything with it other than carry it around. I think it’s because she wakes up creaky and needs some time to warm up. By the afternoon, she’s all about the adventure and shenanigans, but then she pays the price for it later and stiffens up overnight. It’s a delicate balance; exercise is so important for dogs—my view is 90 percent of behavior problems stem from a lack of exercise or stimulation. But finding the line between enough and too much is hard.  Even treat time this morning was kind of a disaster. The Fair Jessica thinks we should curtail the tradition for a while. They’re also both exceedingly needy when I come home everyday, which is kind of nice (you can see how much I need a haircut here). Gracie is, too

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant, a dose of optimism with Ron Bailey and Marian Tupy

GLoP Culture returns, with Oscars, podcast, and Tenet talk

Why our federal system needs an Electoral College

The members-only Midweek Epistle

The week’s second Remnant, the long-awaited return of Sen. Ben Sasse

Let’s not kid ourselves about the Israel-UAE-Bahrain deal

And now, the weird stuff

“If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

Dentist sedates patient, extracts tooth while riding on hoverboard, promptly jailed

Just in case you ever wondered what that weird spatula you always see chefs using is actually for

Exactly what you want when you go to Taco Bell: wine?

I guess this is what you resort to publishing when you go bankrupt

Photograph of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.