December 4, 2020
This spring, with the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and then in the early summer with the murder of George Floyd by police officers, a portion of America and the world became aware of what has been lived reality for Black Americans throughout this country’s history: too often, in the eyes of those with impunity to destroy life, Black lives have not mattered.
The widespread protests against police violence in summer 2020 stemmed from outrage at a history of discrimination and inexcusable loss of life that reaches back through Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and too many others throughout American history. These murders are unacceptable; the conditions that gave rise to this violence are likewise unacceptable. These were not isolated tragedies; rather, they are linked to racism and structural inequality that pervade our society. The public confrontation with anti-Black violence has in turn strengthened struggles for racial justice among indigenous peoples and immigrant communities. In recognition of the failures caused by prior silence, our communities and institutions must confront their pasts and change their futures.
Princeton University has begun a campus-wide effort to address harmful aspects of its past. The History Department joins in these efforts to redress marginalization and inequality on its own, smaller scale. The first issue we have confronted is incomplete information about where we are now and how we got here. Committed to the importance of history and empirical investigation, we found it necessary to compile an account.
A Working Group on Racism and Structural Inequality was impaneled and began the task of research, with the view that necessary reforms will come as a result of serious, engaged discussions among all the members of our community: faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, and alumni. While much of the reckoning over our national failure to confront racism will occur beyond our campus, this community must also play its part. Local action matters.
The discussions and research are ongoing. This process will generate data and ideas from which we can build a better community in our Department, a community that will aid our students here and as they head out into the world. Remaining silent about the past is a form of complicity with it; as historians, we choose otherwise. As we continue to actively work on these issues, we will provide further updates and information here as soon as they are available.
History is a tool for thinking about our world. The more accessible and inclusive the study of history is, at Princeton and elsewhere, the more people will be equipped with a set of tools to help make the world more just. Inequality, inequity, abuse of power whether violent or non-violent, discrimination on ethnic, religious, cultural, class, caste, gender, and sexuality lines are found all over the world, and over very different historical epochs, and they do not always work in the same way. The study of history can and should be a powerful way of turning the tables on these vicious practices — thinking about their origins, how they operate, but also how they can be overcome.