Princeton University Press is handing out book development grants based on race, part of a program for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” that top civil rights lawyers say violates federal law.
The publisher, which is independent of Princeton University, has since 2021 been running the “Supporting Diverse Voices” initiative, which pairs minority authors with “book coaches” who help them write book proposals. The first round of grants was for “Woman, transgender, and gender-expansive authors in science and mathematics,” according to the program’s website. The next three rounds were for “BIPOC scholars” in the social sciences, humanities, and hard sciences. A fifth round will open on February 1 for minorities in social science.
Though the publisher calls these collaborations “grants,” they appear to be contracts based on the terms of the program. In exchange for coaching, the program website states, “grantees agree to give [Princeton University Press] the right to consider the resulting proposals exclusively, before they are submitted to any other publishers for consideration.” That means the grants likely violate the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which bans race discrimination in contracting.
“Absolutely contracts awarded on the basis of race are illegal,” said Adam Mortara, the lead trial lawyer for the plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the Supreme Court case that could outlaw affirmative action in higher education. “I’m fairly certain the publisher’s counsel could not possibly have blessed this violation of federal law.”
Three other lawyers—Dan Morenoff at the American Civil Rights Project, David Bernstein at George Mason University law school, and Gail Heriot at the University of San Diego law school—echoed Mortara’s analysis, saying the program was almost certainly illegal.
“It’s as if they think the law no longer applies to them,” said Heriot, who also sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “What worries me is that with the present administration, they may be right.”
The director of Princeton University Press, Christie Henry, declined to comment, writing only to confirm that the publisher is legally separate from the university.
The grants are part of the parade of race-conscious programs, both public and private, that have swept through the United States since 2020. The Biden administration denied pandemic relief funds to white-owned restaurants. State governments and private hospitals rationed scarce COVID treatments based on race. Major corporations, including Pfizer, Amazon, Google, and Starbucks, have faced legal scrutiny over their minority-only fellowships.
The trend has been especially acute in academia, where lawsuits haven’t deterred schools from running racially discriminatory programs. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill between them have at least six programs that bar white applicants—even as the schools’ affirmative action policies are under review by the Supreme Court.
Other than Princeton University Press, most academic publishers have steered clear of overt quotas. A grant program at MIT Press, for example, focuses on “excluded and chronically underrepresented” groups but does not specify any racial criteria for the grants.
The program nonetheless makes clear what its priorities are.
“The lived experience of negotiating a white supremacist, ableist, and patriarchal society from a minoritized position requires sophistication and resourcefulness that can inform innovative research and scholarship,” a press release for the program reads. “We value lived experience and recognize that it is a vital form of knowledge.”
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