Last week, hundreds of Princeton residents gathered in Palmer Square to protest a planned demonstration by a group with ties to white supremacy. The counter-protests showed, in the words of Mayor Liz Lempert, that “Hatred has no home in Princeton”. How can we ensure that the message of inclusion gets translated into action? And why is it that although we say we are committed to being an inclusive town, the African American community in Princeton continues to shrink?
According to US Census data, African Americans make up about 6% of the population of Princeton, compared to about 14% throughout the state of New Jersey. Overt racism probably isn’t the cause of the unusually low proportion of African Americans in Princeton. Most people in Princeton are careful not to use racist language, our elected officials speak regularly about the need for diversity and racial harmony, and the Princteon Police Department takes extra care to avoid racial profiling. There is clearly something else going on, and we have to consider the importance of housing.
Although homes in Princeton are theoretically available for anybody, regardless of race, it is well-known that housing in Princeton is much more expensive than in other towns. As African American people are much less likely to have family wealth, because of a history of discrimination, they are much more likely to be cut out of a housing market where prices are high. Unless we actively do something to make housing opportunities available for people at lower income levels, they are not going to be able to live in Princeton, and that penalty is going to fall disproportionately on black people.
The town shares responsibility for setting up a housing market that is not open to all. We have not built anything like enough affordable housing, and a lot of the affordable housing that we have built tends to be at the edge of town. The town of Princeton has moved quickly in recent years to pass protections for ‘neighborhood character’, but has held up efforts to build affordable housing through a lengthy court action that has drawn the condemnation of the New Jersey NAACP.
These choices by Princeton Council are presumably based on a sense among elected officials that they are giving people in the town what they want. It’s up to us to make it clear that we expect the town to do more to ensure that enough affordable housing gets built. If ‘protecting neighborhood character’ is just a polite way to maintain neighborhoods with very few black residents, then we have to be clear that we expect better. In practice that means that we have to support a certain amount of neighborhood change as well as neighborhood protection, because Princeton’s neighborhoods were largely built in a different time, when overt racial discrimination was prevalent. A lot of our neighborhoods have never had many African American residents.
In the coming year, Princeton is likely to propose a number of new developments of affordable housing around the town. When those proposals are made, we will all have a choice to either support efforts to add affordable housing, or to try to downsize or block it. In January 2019, hundreds of Princeton residents came out to show that our town rejects racial disharmony. If even half of those people came to the planning meetings to speak in support of affordable housing, then opportunities for everybody to live in Princeton would be abundant. The same spirit that rose up to oppose racial hostility in Princeton can help build true inclusivity in our town. Princeton can be a town for everybody, but only if we make it so.