Free Speech

"How Racist Are Universities, Really? Hyperbolic Accusations Do More Harm Than Good"

An excellent piece by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, one of the nation's leading scholars of race, law, and society.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


It's in the Chronicle of Higher Education; an excerpt:

But being on the side of anti-racism is no inoculation against error. An allegation of systemic racism leveled against a university is a serious charge. If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong. If an allegation is flimsy or baseless, however, it ought to be recognized as such. Engaging in the urgent work of anti-racist activism should entail avoidance of mistaken charges that cause wrongful injury, exacerbate confusion, and sow distrust that ultimately weakens the struggle.

One might wonder about the need to voice such an obvious observation. The fact is that this moment of laudable protest has been shadowed by a rise in complacency and opportunism. Some charges of racism are simply untenable. Some complainants are careless about fact-finding and analysis. And some propose coercive policies that would disastrously inhibit academic freedom.

An exemplification of both of these disturbing tendencies is found in the ultimatum delivered in July 2020 to the president of Princeton University, Christopher Eisgruber, in a letter that was signed by about 350 professors, lecturers, and graduate students (on a campus with a faculty numbering around 1,280). The signatories included a number of Princeton luminaries ….

And one more:

The most egregious demand … is for a faculty committee to "oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty." If adopted, this proposal would throw a pall over intellectual life at the university. An investigatory and disciplinary apparatus for a vice as vague and contested as "racist behaviors" would quickly lead to a level of fear and resentment, inhibition and threat that would poison the community to an extent that is difficult to exaggerate….

Andrew Cole, a professor of English, for instance, explicitly defended [this]: "In a country so embarrassingly incapable of acknowledging its history of racism and anti-Black terrorism," he wrote, "it strikes many of us as a curious indirection to talk about academic freedom when we speak of anti-racism." Starting with the proposition that "racism" is unethical, and that the university prohibits unethical research, Cole concludes that the university has an obligation to root out racist research, racist publication, and racist teaching.

Cole's argument is specious. The university's prohibition on "unethical" research applies to research based on fraudulence — for example, a researcher claiming to have tested 10 animals when she only tested five — or to violations of protocols guiding research on humans. Determining whether research is "racist," by contrast, takes one into a realm of ideological contestation in which, at a secular, modern research university, there should be no imposition of orthodoxy of the sort that the ultimatum threatens….

A professor at Princeton University need not worry about being investigated or disciplined for writing a book propounding the idea that the world would have been better off had England squashed the American uprising in 1776, or that it is preferable to say that "women" get pregnant as opposed to saying that "people" get pregnant, or that abortion is a moral abomination, or that restricting abortion rights is a moral abomination, or that racial affirmative action has been a failure, or that racial affirmative action has been a success, or that it is perfectly appropriate to enunciate the word "nigger" in full for pedagogical purposes, or that the N-word should never be voiced under any circumstances. The existing horizon of intellectual freedom at the university is gloriously wide open — as it should be.

How would the anti-racism committee demanded by the letter decide whether to investigate a complaint? Having investigated and found an infraction, what kind of discipline would it levy? Would a professor be engaging in censurable "racist" conduct if she argued on behalf of broad rights to abortion? Some claim that such a position is "anti-Black." What about a professor arguing in favor of decreasing the size of police forces? Some argue that that position is "anti-Black," too, since it could lead to greater vulnerability of Black people to violent criminality.

What about a professor arguing in favor of freely permitting inter-racial adoptions? Some insist that such a regime facilitates anti-Black cultural genocide. And what about a professor who expresses admiration for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad? After all, the leader of the Nation of Islam taught that whites were, quite literally, "devils." To open the door even a crack to the possibility of "investigations" into such matters under the aegis of the university is antithetical to the freedom essential to intellectuals and artists in institutions of higher learning.

For those unfamiliar with Randy Kennedy's work, he's a traditional liberal, and a prominent supporter of race-based affirmative action.