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The Department of Education’s decision to initiate an investigation of Princeton University for unlawful discrimination doesn’t follow from a complaint filed by a victim. It springs from a confession by the president, the Biggest Man on Campus. This is very important.

Like every college, Princeton has an office that receives complaints and conducts inquiries, which is always open to hearing of any incidents of bias. Those officials are eager, in fact, to root out racism, sexism, etc. But we have no reports of any such complaints being filed in this particular affair. The evidence comes from the administration. Usually, the administration wants to defend the college against such allegations, or to identify culprits swiftly and apply its own punishments. This time, however, we have a self-accusation in hand, a self-incrimination.

Here is the actual confession, from President Christopher Eisgruber’s letter to the faculty dated September 2:

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. . . . Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself. . . . My colleagues and I look forward to hearing from you, communicating with you, and partnering with you to make Princeton fully inclusive, and to fight the systemic racism that has for too long damaged the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color both at this University and in the United States more broadly. 

There it is, unambiguous and forthright. Minorities have been “damaged” at Princeton in the past and they are still damaged in the present. This goes well beyond microaggressions and the scattered, infrequent cases of overt harassment here and there. Eisgruber makes that clear. The racism is widespread, pervasive, and effectual. It is “embedded” throughout the campus, part of the “structures of the University itself.” It is “systemic.”

In other words, Eisgruber has signed, sealed, and delivered to the Federal government a conviction. The Feds don’t even have to investigate. Now, apart from punishment for existing violations, the only issue is whether Princeton lied to the government in the past when it declared its full compliance with Title VII.

Princeton has responded with a statement assuring everyone that the school is “vigilant in our pursuit of equity in every aspect of our programs and operations.” The tone is the complete opposite of Eisgruber’s tone in his letter, a switch from solemn guilt to bold self-praise. “Attracting talent from every sector of society is crucial to our academic mission,” it says, “and we will continue to lead on these issues.”

Which is it? Is Princeton at the vanguard of social justice, or is it caught in lingering hidebound biases?

This gets us to the real issue—I don’t mean the question of Princeton’s guilt or innocence, but the answer Princeton’s leadership offers. It is a remarkable one. Is Princeton guilty or innocent? Both. That is the point of the Eisgruber letter; its purpose from the beginning was to have it both ways. Yes, we are guilty, it says, but we are also not guilty. Yes, there is racism, but it’s systemic, not the result of any individual action. It’s there in the “structures,” but we can’t say exactly where and how. It’s like God, a presence, a reality so ubiquitous you can’t locate and specify it, Being and not a being. 

You see the advantage of this approach, that tactical value of “systemic racism.” It acknowledges the sin, which is a necessary gesture for college leaders to make, but it shields them from blame.  Nothing they did caused the problem, and they’re doing everything they can now to expel it from the Princeton grounds. You can’t hold them responsible for a crime three centuries in the making, not if the present leaders admit it now and pledge to correct it.

In other words, “systemic racism” is a way for the administrative elite to confess their participation in a longstanding wrong, yet keep their jobs. They avoid having to defend their institutions against the critics—it is a tricky thing to tell a disadvantaged minority individual that he hasn’t suffered—while remaining in charge of it. They have to admit to racism in their own institutions, but realize that it raises an obvious rejoinder: “You are the head of this college you agree is racist—you have prospered quite nicely in this racist system—you are a white male—the very first step you should take is to resign and ask that a person of color take your place.” College leaders feel the threat of forced resignation whenever these conflicts arise, as happened to the head of the University of Missouri, where Black Lives Matter began in 2015. Confession is mandatory, and so is the promise to do better, much better.

And now the Department of Education has ruined the whole thing. The racism in play, remember, is an everywhere-and-nowhere condition. It has to be for there to be guilt but no individual blame. But a Federal investigation won’t be satisfied with that. A crime has been committed and that requires specifics. Who, when, where? Princeton is going to have to provide details, perpetrators and victims. If it can’t, then President Eisgruber will look ridiculous—or conniving. Princeton will have to prove its racism, or admit that it doesn’t really exist, or (most likely) say that it exists but in a form that no common-sense understanding of racism would accept, such as the fact that blacks are underrepresented on the faculty.

In any case, the game is over. Now that the Department of Education has followed through on the admission of racist guilt at one campus, we should expect to see similar confessions on the part of college presidents halt immediately.

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.

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