Racial Preferences Shakes a Classical Studies Conference

David Randall

Another race controversy has erupted in Classical Studies. At the joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) in San Diego this January, a hotel security guard seems to have asked two non-white conference participants to show their IDs. Later, at a panel on “The Future of the Classics,” an audience member, Mary Frances Williams, we are told addressed panelist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an assistant professor of Classics at Princeton, saying he only got his job because of his race. Her comment was condemned as unforgivably racist, she was banned from further participation in the SCS conference, and the Society for Classical Studies is now condemning racism with ritual fervor.

John Rosenberg at Minding the Campus has ably summarized the larger context of these incidents. Princeton, as virtually all other American universities, is officially committed to diversity and inclusion; they boast about their “commitment to diverse faculty’—in other words, their commitment to making race, sex, and other group identities a factor in hiring. Peralta himself states that “It is impossible to think of my scholarship, my achievements, without thinking about my blackness.” Peralta argued, at the very panel where Dr. Williams was condemned for racism, for race and sex discrimination in classics publications:

I emphasize that this is an economy of scarcity that at the level of journal publication will remain zero-sum (until and unless this system of publication is dismantled): every person of color who is to be published will take the place of a white man whose words could have or had already appeared in the pages of that journal. And that would be a future worth striving for.

The contrast between the treatment of Peralta and the treatment of Williams illuminates. The current stance of the classics discipline, as so much of academia, is that racial discrimination against white men is good, but that to say that such discrimination has been effective is a racist offense. Peralta and his allies within the classics discipline are also weaponizing these incidents to forward their own plan to intensify racial discrimination within the field.

The Society for Classical Studies has said that “the "Future of Classics" video … will be posted on our YouTube channel as soon as we are able to process the videos given to us by the videographer.” They have not yet done so. We encourage the Classics Studies association to post the video of Peralta’s panel as soon as possible, so that the public may view and judge the event directly.

The Society for Classical Studies should state publicly that classics scholars have the right, as a basic principle of intellectual freedom, to oppose all race-conscious policies. They should also state publicly that classics scholars have the right as members of the profession to say publicly that affirmative action, however euphemized, is the reason that another member of the profession has a job. This is impolite—but it is no more impolite than Peralta’s call for white men to surrender their ‘privilege’ of academic publication. If civility trumped a scholar’s right to say what he believes is true, the Society for Classical Studies would have banned Peralta along with Williams.

Of course, a scholar should also say what is well-founded. Princeton is committed in principle to racial discrimination, but can we say that Peralta himself is a beneficiary of such discrimination? Certainly, he has helped introduce racially discriminatory pre-doctoral scholarships to the Princeton Classics department; the beneficiaries of these scholarships will certainly be beneficiaries of race discrimination. No one outside the Princeton Classics department can know whether Peralta was hired with such motives in mind. All one can do is examine circumstantial evidence.

Of the publication records of the five assistant professors of Classics at Princeton in spring 2019—Joshua Billings, Caroline Cheung, Daniela Mairhofer, Peralta himself, and Katerina Stergiopoulou—Peralta’s CV, as of 2016, appears to record relatively few professional classics publications. Since then he has added several respectable publications on Roman religion and allied subjects. Yet in 2019, almost three years after he was hired at Princeton, he has not yet published his first monograph. Peralta has instead produced a large number of works as a ‘public intellectual,’ such as a memoir of his life as an illegal immigrant, an op-ed on “How to incorporate immigration studies into high school curricula,” and a lecture on “Inclusive Classics.” Peralta appears to be the only assistant professor of Classics at Princeton aspiring for tenure on a ‘public intellectual’ track.

A sophisticated skeptic might speculate that the Princeton Classics Department was as interested in Peralta’s status as an illegal immigrant as his race—and that it probably helped that he had been a Princeton undergrad. Peralta’s CV does seem light for appointment to Princeton—as a comparison with the CV of his colleague Joshua Billings makes clear.

Peralta himself appears to have been harmed by the racial preference regime as much as anyone. His career as a scholar of Roman religion has been delayed, perhaps aborted, as he has been indulged in writing memoirs and polemics. It is precisely the promise that Peralta showed as a scholar that makes the waste of his mind so terrible. The NAS hopes that Princeton University and the Society for Classical Studies will someday acknowledge their institutional complicity in damaging Peralta’s scholarly career.

But Peralta’s personal status as a possible beneficiary of race preferences matters less than the larger principle, that all group identity preferences should be removed from higher education. This is the long-term goal which all Americans should desire.

Note: The actual video has now been posted. As we mentioned in our follow-up post, Williams' precise words were  “You may have got your job because you’re black, but I’d prefer to think you got your job because of merit.” Williams spoke in the hypothetical; she was reported as making a declarative statement. The distinction matters--particularly because the claim that Williams was making a declarative statement has been used to vilify her.

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