On June 11, 1963, a great but flawed Princeton alumnus [John F. Kennedy ’39] challenged the nation to recognize that civil rights is for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or anything else. He called on each of us to examine our own conscience to see where we stood on the issue of race and what we could do in our homes, communities, and at every level of government to treat others the way we would want ourselves and our children to be treated. That was 57 years ago. I suspect that many members of my class and that entire generation of Princetonians remember JFK’s challenge and have tried to live by it. In this sense, I think the letter of Gregory Nobles ’70 in the last issue of PAW that many people at Princeton have for years been trying to eliminate the scourge of racism and strive in various ways for equality and justice is exactly right.
As Greg Nobles asked, what took the University administration so long to catch up? But if we could hear today from Presidents Goheen, Bowen, Shapiro, and Tilghman, they would likely point out — with some humility — the many ways in which they did move Princeton forward to be a more inclusive place for all races, despite failures to accomplish everything,
Now, after all the progress that has been made and steps which have been taken for over half a century to fight racism at Princeton, we hear the crusading call to “seize this tragic and searing moment in American history to ask how we can more effectively fight racism” and to be “relentless in our efforts to eliminate the scourge of racism and strive for equality and justice.” The problem with crusades is that throughout history they have caused a lot of collateral damage, often unnecessarily.
I would hope that as Princetonians gird up their loins to fight racism they would show others the respect they themselves seek. This would include respect towards Professor Joshua Katz, a great scholar in the Princeton community, who may have stretched the dictionary meaning of the word “terrorist” by applying it to Black Justice League, but that does not make him a racist, bigot, or deserving of public rebuke. We can even ask: When did students earn the right to commit a trespass and take the University president’s office hostage to get their demands met?
If we do not approve of Professor Katz’s language, we should avoid escalating the problem by being hyper-reactive ourselves. Nothing is really gained by throwing exaggerations and epithets at each other. Such language does not move us forward as a community of scholars. We can do better than that.