"Calling Your Students 'Terrorists' is not 'Brave'" and Other Things One Should Not Need to Tell a Colleague

By Rebecca Kennedy and Maximus Planudes

It is never surprising (sadly) when a member of the discipline of Greek and Roman studies outs themselves fully as a willing participant in and peddler of traditional White supremacist ideas. It is even less surprising when the person doing it is a member of the Heterodox Academy. And when they (of course) publish their screed in Q***ette, we come full circle. No one should be shocked. But everyone should be (in the words of one former student in the department of said Classicist) "appalled." And, of course, it is always disappointing in the extreme when we see people who have made their careers on being insightful and smart readers write things that are so full of common errors and ignorance. It always makes us question how very insightful and smart as readers they ever really were. 

The most recent installment in the annals of Classicist Gone White Supremacist is Prof. J. Katz (Princeton) "A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor," a response by Katz to a letter written and signed by hundreds of his colleague at Princeton and published as an Open Letter. And it is all the more appalling because it, as these things often do, presents itself as a work of reasoned thought and correction instead of the ignorant, shallow, and racist opinion piece it actually is. This post is a response to it, co-authored by myself and Maximus Planudes. We write this response for a few reasons. The first is that Katz just has some things wrong, specifically about the history of the US generally and of academic research and knowledge in the last 60 years. He should be corrected. 

Secondly, because he is in a position of power and authority and situated in the heart of the prestige economy of Classics and academia in general. He has had the ability and continues to have the ability to cause harm to many within the field and on his campus--no one who ever speaks of their students as "terrorists" (see below for further discussion) should be allowed in ANY classroom, let alone working in "Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges" and "Teacher Preparation," as he lists on his faculty page. We may not have much real power and authority (and will surely never be Fellows at All Souls, as he was), and we do not have nearly the auctoritas and prestige of Prof. Katz, but we have a platform and those of us who have these should speak out when and where we can. 

We must recognize that Katz is positioning himself as a "voice of reason" and "neutral" arbiter and only deems those things that can be fit into the "colorblind" category as appropriate responses. His op-ed is a textbook case of colorblind racism wrapped up in smugness, self-righteousness, and historical inaccuracies being deployed to neutralize any race-conscious anti-racist reparative action. On the other hand, we are cognizant that this is not a fair and balanced response to his response. But, it is neither bullying nor a call for firing nor cancellation. We are merely engaging in robust debate with some occasional snide commentary.

Just be warned: We are not linking to it. You have to do that search yourself. We hate driving traffic to drivel, but feel the op-ed must be addressed.

See also now, this somewhat different response to Katz by Vanessa Stoval.


Let's start at the beginning.

"whom were considered heroes just a few minutes ago": Our colleague opens his piece with what he likely views as a clever comment on "cancel culture". What he misunderstands is that there exist decades (not minutes) of scholarship on these numerous "Founding Fathers," scholarship that questions and, indeed, dismantles their status as "national heroes." For example:

This is the opening of William Freehling's 1972 "The Founding Fathers and Slavery." 1972.  Freehling is, of course, pushing against the negative views of the Founders (specifically Jefferson)--which Katz himself likely agrees with--, but we cite this only to point out that this "cancellation" has been happening for over half a century. That it is only gaining any traction outside of academic circles now is a measure of how powerful our White supremacist institutions are. Katz either does not know that this debate has been around since his birth or is just trying to be cute and failing. 

"In Princeton, New Jersey on July 4th, 2020": Although the Faculty Letter only made the slightest allusion to the Declaration of Independence (it was released on July 4), Katz makes it the conceit motivating his piece, with some confusing consequences. His only comparison does not make much sense. He appears to be aiming at wit with his notion of capitalization (united States vs United States), but the Faculty Letter nowhere says United States. (Incidentally, the Declaration uses 18C conventions of capitalization and the articles of confederacy did capitalize United).  

None of this, of course, addresses the quoted first sentence of the Faculty Letter.: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” It’s worth taking the claim seriously, something Katz seems unable to bring himself to do. Let’s hear from the man once referred to by historians as “the first professional racist in American history,” John H. Van Evrie. Evrie was well known as a popularizer of scientific racism and had a great deal of influence on politicians in his lifetime. He was the author and editor of a weekly magazine called the Weekly Day Book, with its publication masthead “White Men Must Rule America."  He was a slavery apologist who often put slave and slavery in quotation marks because he did not consider the condition of enslavement to be forced, but was simply the natural order of things. In particular, we find his 1867 book White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, or Negroes, A Subordinate Race and Slavery Its Normal Condition helpful to make our point. 

It seems (based on his later comment that anyone who believes this will teach the 1619 project as dogma) that Katz considers the statement obviously false. But! The man who helped popularize scientific racism begs to differ! Let’s see what Evrie tells us about what most “right-thinking” Americans thought about the foundations of America back in 1867. After explaining how climate meant that most Black enslaved people were eventually settled in the southern part of the US, he explains how it was that in Virginia in particular (home, of course, to Thomas Jefferson), the close proximity of a large Black population is what led these once English aristocrats to turn away from their love of monarchy and embrace “new ideas” of governance. 

Further, after another lengthy proof of his point, he declares that the men of Virginia had no choice but to adapt their institutions around the “unalterable fact” of Black natural inferiority:

With a result, of course, that these once English aristocrats became the staunch promoters of democracy and liberty for white men, as exemplified in the “great revolutionary moment of 1776”:

Although Katz seems to think that it makes absolutely no sense for anyone to think that anti-Blackness was a foundational value in America, it seems that there are, in fact, many people historically who have not only thought this was so but embraced it and promoted it widely and used it as evidence for the continued enslavement of Black Americans and then, after Emancipation, for the institution of Jim Crow. Perhaps his inability to realize this self-evident truth is because we as a society have been told repeatedly by those embracing colorblind ideologies that racism is over because we elected a Black president.

The attempt at wit, though, seems designed only to set up his second anxiety about capitalization: how can Black be capitalized but white not (perhaps a reference recent press decisions to capitalize B in Black)?  This bit is disturbing. He is either ignorant of or pretending to be ignorant of decades worth of scholarship on Whiteness (even though he was a colleague of Nell Irvin Painter)--such claims to ignorance by respected scholars are always baffling. The capitalization of a letter designates the category as a recognized, constructed, non-natural racialized status. To leave “white” lower case pretends that Whiteness is an unraced norm or default. It is one of the ways that Whiteness maintains its invisibility. This is one reason why there was push back for not capitalizing both terms.

But, that is not really what we think his point is. The way this is worded (and here we are practicing philology again!), it is almost as if he thinks of himself as White and cannot accept that he should be subordinated to Black by not getting his own capital letter. 

“This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who  think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately, or publicly.” (Baldwin, On being white and other lies).


"I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter":  Can't fault him for optimism! 


While the Faculty letter makes no explicit reference to the Declaration, Katz titles his essay a Declaration of Independence. This choice raises a few questions. Does Katz believe that his declaration is indeed a comparable document? At some point, a healthy regard for oneself slips into arrogance. What truths does Katz believe are self-evident?  One more question for those on the job market: he references part of the opening, “When in the course of human events,” but does not complete the sentence. Instead, he complains about the youths these days, whinging that every American child no longer knows the whole sentence. 

What is the whole “long and elegant sentence”? 

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" (Actual Declaration of Independence).

Holy Cow! Is Katz leaving Princeton!? Does he have a job at Ramsey Center for Western Civilization!?  Who knows. It is clear, however, that Katz is a fan of the Declaration. Let us imagine the Katz' family festive fourth of July table. We are told that they read the stirring prose of the Declaration. Surely, they follow it with the powerful and equally moving short speech by Fredrick Douglass. They then, surely, discuss at length Prof. Danielle Allen's important "Our Declaration." Yeah, that surely must be how it goes. 

These plausible imaginings aside, there are numerous additional elements of this letter that one could address. This response is already long; we will restrict ourselves to just a few more of the most egregious. 

For example, in listing the possible reasons many Princeton professors signed the letter, Katz tells us that the last is the largest category.

"(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support."

Reading this, We wondered what separated Katz from category 4. He agrees with some of the demands without assenting to everything. In such a document, one can reasonably sign in that situation. Perhaps, the self-revealing scare quotes around allies resolve the question. Katz perhaps worries that someone might believe him an ally. He need not worry.  

Katz does not support the Faculty Letter, his declaration implies, because he worries that “dozens” of the proposals will lead to a campus “civil war” and undermine the public’s confidence in higher education. Katz is given to reckless exaggeration. We doubt he could find 24 objectionable proposals (there are 43 in total), let alone one that would lead to civil war. In fact, he cites nearly as many proposals that he agrees with as those he dislikes. But let’s explore some of what will bring on Princeton’s “civil war.”

What of the specific proposals that bother him? Let’s start from the clearest statement in the entire letter of his devotion to White innocence and colorblindness: “It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people...extra perks for no other reason other than their pigmentation.” This one is a doozy. Firstly, because it suggests just how ignorant (willfully or accidentally) he is of the history of anti-Black racism in America and how it has functioned since the Civil Rights movement (we would recommend Bonilla-Silva Racism without Racists, but Katz doesn’t seem much interested in scholarship written on race in the last 5 or 6 decades). It is especially clear that he does not recognize how much his own skin color provides him with advantages. More distressing, however, is how he seems to understand it as a matter of pigmentation. One of the most obvious and enduring aspects of Whiteness is its position as the absence of color, which, again, identifies Whiteness as normal and everything else as deviant.

Then there is the principle of White neutrality: anyone who thinks that anti-Blackness is foundational would “teach the 1619 project as dogma.” Controversy over the 1619 project aside, this is an almost explicit statement that Katz does not trust his Black colleagues or anyone who signed that letter (if they are one of the “believers'') to be balanced and neutral in their teaching of US History. While he, on the other hand, of course, recognizes that slavery and race had something to do with America (just not much). This is why we are certain that he read Douglass and discussed Allen at his festive 4th of July table--because he is balanced and reasonable. This is no different from Black journalists who were barred by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from reporting on the George Floyd/Black Lives Matters protests since they (but not White colleagues) were deemed unable to do so without bias. This statement by Katz makes it clear that he does not think anti-Black racism has shaped American society. And, honestly, for people who believe this, there is no evidence that will ever be enough evidence to convince them otherwise. This type of belief in the face of overwhelming evidence is the actual dogma. 

What follows next is probably the most egregious misrepresentation in the entire op-ed:

This student organization is NOT listed as a known terrorist organization. We checked. This statement, one of his numerous exaggerations in the op-ed, presents a claim so misleading that it borders on hate speech itself (by legal definition). We are not at Princeton and have no first-hand evidence about this group. Katz says that they made people who disagreed with them “miserable” and that he watched something on Instagram, something that he classified “as one of the most evil things he has seen.” We are guessing he has not watched any videos of the numerous Black Americans killed by police. Regardless, it is still not terrorism. It sounds more like a dog whistle to those who believe that anyone advocating for Black lives is a terrorist. We hope he didn't mean it that way. (PS. he made a "800-word statement" on his 'metaphorical use' of the terms. Lol. You can find it linked in this article along with a department statement and uni president statement).

The last in the list worth addressing is the call for a committee. Even Katz agrees that racist behaviors and incidents require disciplinary actions. The more troubling is faculty oversight of research and publications. This is a place where we also would want to be careful and we think that the letter writers themselves recognize the dangers. (See now this detailed response by Prof. Andrew Cole of Princeton on this element of the letter).

Katz asks rhetorically whether there is anyone who “doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?” We don't believe it nor, seemingly, do those who signed the letter. Katz’s discussion is alarmist, but let’s look at the actual proposal from the Faculty Letter:  

"Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures."

This is academic bureaucracy, as familiar to Katz as to any faculty member. They want a group of faculty to create a document that sets out guidelines for what counts as racist actions on campus. Such a document would be crafted by Princeton faculty and have to pass, we imagine, a full faculty vote. There would then be a faculty only committee to oversee the enforcement of those rules, including a process for appeal. The devil will, of course, be in the details, but an arbitrary star chamber is not envisioned. And we want to add a dose of realism to hysterical academic handwringing. From our experience, any document that makes it through a full faculty vote will be so watered down that it will hardly be anti-racist anymore. 

And, let’s also be clear--there already are committees and people who police research and scholarship. Sometimes it happens in peer review, sometimes at the tenure and promotion committee table. Sometimes it happens in conversations where we are told that x topic (insert something involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, reception) is not an “appropriate” topic for a “real scholar”. We all know it happens. Katz’s alarmism is perhaps addressed to people who carry on what can be understood as research with explicitly racist goals (race and IQ studies, for example--a favorite topic at Q***ette). We will never know.

In the end, the Faculty Letter is clear that it is offering “principled steps” that require “faculty endorsement and input.” The letter expresses the desire for discussions of its content.  Did Katz speak with any of the signatories, many who were(?) his “friends”, about his concerns?  Why did he publish this? In contrast to the Letter writers, his goal is unclear, unless it is just an anti-woke, self-aggrandizing, virtue signal to his colleagues over at the Heterodox Academy. We hope not.