Throughout its history, Princeton has grappled with what crosses the “line” between free speech and freedom of expression, and racist statements and actions.

There is a history of how people of color are represented—going back to minstrel shows performed at Princeton and across the United States. The Princeton Triangle Club, the Universty’s first performance group, included minstrel shows and blackface as part of their act “All in Favor” in 1949, after they had already declined in popularity nationwide.

Image: Princeton students in blackface for a 1949 performance of "All in Favor” by the Triangle Club. (Princeton University Archives)
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Some of Princeton’s official songs have origins in the minstrel tradition as well. “Levee Song,” first published in 1894, later inspired the song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and refers to the use of Black labor to construct levees.

Images: Illustration of sign board showing Princeton student activities, including minstrel shows, in the 1890 Bric-a-Brac. (Princeton Bric-a-Brac)

The 1894 University songbook Carmina Princetonia, which contains a score of “Levee Song.” (University Archives)

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“The plan of presenting a minstrel performance before the College has been proposed in every second term for several years. Such a performance would certainly be acceptable to any College audience; it will be especially acceptable here. For it will not only help to enliven the present term, but will afford an outlet for our long pent-up humorous and jocular emotions.”

—EDITORS OF THE DAILY PRINCETONIAN, 1886

Students have spoken out against offensive speakers invited in the name of intellectual diversity, including those who espoused eugenicist perspectives. When Nobel laureate William B. Shockley visited campus in 1973 to defend his argument on genetic superiority, 400 students protested.

Image: Students demonstrating outside of McCosh Hall, where the event with William B. Shockley was held. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)
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“The major cause of American Negroes’ intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and is racially genetic in origin.”

—WILLIAM B. SHOCKLEY, NOBEL LAUREATE

In 2016, 75 students and community members walked out of an event with Charles Murray, in protest of his views in his book The Bell Curve, where he argued that Black communities had differences in achievement because of genetic factors. 

Image: Black Justice League student organizers staging a protest in 2015.
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A satirical dance group formed by members of the Men’s Swimming and Diving team, Urban Congo was officially recognized by the University in 2013. In 2015, they performed with face paint and loincloths while drumming, which was viewed by many as mocking African cultures.

Image: Screenshot of the performance by Urban Congo in 2015. (Daily Princetonian)

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Members of the student group Urban Congo performing with body paint and loincloths in 2013.
Image: Princeton students protesting Urban Congo and the University president’s response at an all-campus gathering. (Mark Makela / The New York Times)

In the aftermath of the Urban Congo incident, anonymous peers personally attacked Black students and those who defended them on the social media platform Yik Yak. The anonymous writers decried the “hypersensitivity” of the offended students, downplaying the dehumanizing incident and defending Urban Congo’s right to free expression and cultural appropriation.

Images: Screenshots of Yik Yak debates about the Urban Congo incident and protest response. (BuzzFeed News)
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Like it got to the point where we were jaded and disillusioned. Things would happen, and we just wouldn’t react. Even, for example, I think it was T.I. who used to do the Pimps and Hoes party, right. So, people would be walking around with like crunk juice and like chains and like—just like super racist. Blackface happened, right. I’m literally walking down the street with a group of black kids and we kinda like shrug our shoulders. Like, that’s Princeton for you.

In the summer of 2020, a white Princeton undergraduate sent a Facebook response containing a racial slur to a Black Fordham recent graduate. The Princeton student claimed that the Fordham student could not “speak for the n*****” because of his prep school education. The Princeton student explained the slur by saying he was simply “parroting” language the Fordham student had already used.

Though Princeton did not respond directly to the incident
, administrators released a letter stating that offensive slurs do not necessarily violate University policies, harmful as they might be: “even if certain instances of the use of offensive language—including racial, ethnic, gender, or other slurs—may be protected by our policies, depending on the context, they are upsetting, damaging, and unconstructive, and do not match the values of our community.”

Image: Screenshot showing public Facebook conversation between the Fordham recent graduate and the Princeton undergraduate student. (The Daily Princetonian)
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Faculty and Free Speech

In the summer of 2020, Professor Joshua T. Katz criticized an open letter from Princeton faculty that called for anti-racist actions, arguing that some of the recommendations would permanently abridge academic freedom and lead to “civil war on the campus.” Katz took the opportunity to sharply rebuke the Black Justice League, labeling it a terrorist organization.

Image: Screenshot ofQuillette op-ed  by Professor Joshua T. Katz. (Quillette)
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“The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.”

—JOSHUA T. KATZ, PROFESSOR OF CLASSICS

President Eisgruber condemned the words used by Katz, stating, “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly.”

The Classics Department made a strong statement against his views as well, arguing that they were “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.”

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Professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Chair of the African American Studies Department, responded by saying, “Professor Katz, at times in this letter, seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton. That’s the feeling I got from reading the letter.”

Tracy K. Smith, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, stated, “Members of the BJL have already begun to see an uptick in death threats. We have seen all too clearly how such race-baiting, disguised as free speech, can be deadly.”

Image: Professors Tracy K. Smith (left) and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (right). (Jason DeCrow / WBUR; Sameer A. Khan / The New York Times)
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In response to incidents of racism and discrimination on campus, Princeton students have shared their personal stories through campaigns like “I, Too, Am Princeton,” which explores and resist the ways in which people of color and other minorities are often reduced to stereotypes.

Image: Princeton student sends a message as part of the “I, Too, Am Princeton” campaign. (I, Too, Am Princeton)
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How do differences in power based on race shape or constrain our ability to speak freely?

How can universities like Princeton ensure that every student feels welcome?

How do conversations around race differ in academic settings versus in your daily life?

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Ch. 4: Anti-Racism Resources
and Actions