TAKE A BREATH

Erasing Woodrow Wilson, Evading History?

The students at Princeton are right to say President Wilson was a racist, but that does not mean his ghost should be banished from campus. History is more complicated than that.

11.29.15 5:01 AM ET

We need to confront the facts about our racial past as often and honestly as possible and President Wilson's racism is no exception. For that very reason, renaming the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University is hazardous.

First, the facts: Yes, I am a white male, writing a book on Woodrow Wilson’s politics and diplomacy. And yes, Woodrow Wilson was a racist.

As a historian writing in the 1890s, Wilson described the newly enfranchised freedmen and office-holding African Americans of the Reconstruction South as ill-equipped by their past oppression to use their votes or power. That he condemned the Ku Klux Klan as equally unfit to bring order to the chaos of those times, rather than infinitely more so, only adds sting to the slander.

As president of Princeton University, he advised African American prospective applicants to apply elsewhere. [] That he encouraged one applicant to look to “Harvard, Dartmouth, or Brown” rather than a school dominated by scions of former slave owners does not change the fact that his advice reinforced the racist culture of his institution.

As president of the United States, Wilson allowed his southern cabinet officers to segregate their departments--swallowing their bogus claims that both white and black employees as well as “prominent negroes” in the community supported the policy in the interest of mutual comfort. That federal segregation had begun under his Republican predecessors and continued under his Republican successors does not excuse its acceleration under his watch, and certainly does not excuse its persistence in the armed forces during World War I.

Worst of all, as chief executive of a nation whose African American citizens were routinely victims of extrajudicial killings and other violence, corporal and psychological, Wilson failed adequately or earnestly to enforce the laws of the land with justice for all.

This is the record of a racist. But while accurate it is not exhaustive.  To reduce him to a racist and nothing else impoverishes our political culture just as much as ignoring his racism. There are good reasons to name Princeton's school of Public and International Affairs after Wilson—even if he should not be held up as a perfect citizen or statesman.

Wilson lent his name to the school because of his unique career: a seminal student and theorist of politics who had the opportunity to put his ideas into practice at the highest level. Apropos of a historian (and, for that matter, an exponent of America’s ostensibly Christian values), Wilson emphasized the experimental, uncertain, and--crucially--fallible character of all political inquiry and adjustment. 

Yes, fallible: Wilson thought effective leaders, genuine democrats, and true patriots must act boldly as well as humbly, willing to admit mistakes and change course in light of consequences. 

Despite its inconsistent implementation, that theory produced real gains for millions of Americans who benefited from the antitrust laws, electoral reforms, consumer and labor protections, credit services, tariff revisions, and redistributive taxes Wilson pushed through Congress. It also gave expression and institutional form to ideals that inspired the League of Nations and United Nations, while fueling the anticolonial and human rights revolutions still being waged by oppressed peoples and visionaries worldwide.

In short—Wilson was a racist from whom we can learn.

He was not a rabid segregationist or white supremacist, despite decades of careless scholarship claiming that he must have been. (Note to historians and history buffs: Wilson did not applaud but deplored that “unfortunate production,” Birth of a Nation.) Rather, Wilson was a racist much like many white Americans today: vaguely bothered by the injustices afflicting blacks, but rarely enough to risk other priorities to address them, and predisposed by prejudice to exacerbate them--in the interest of harmony and opportunity for all, of course.

White liberal academics, especially, do the public a disservice by making Wilson out as some hideous, dark-age monster totally foreign to our enlightened experience. He was, by the standards of his day and our own faux-tolerant times, a racial moderate. He was constantly assailed by segregationists and white supremacists for favoring “undeserving” blacks with federal patronage, yet almost blithely apathetic toward the murder and humiliation daily visited upon African Americans. Again, he was much like a lot of white folks today: decrying overt prejudice but preferring to live happily isolated from the poverty and violence afflicting black America.

Of course the above could also serve as an argument in favor of renaming the Wilson School rather than against it. One reason we lack the healthy discourse, broad empathy, and unifying social ethos our democracy promises is because too many citizens lack the power to participate equally. The power to name and memorialize is merely a domesticated subspecies of the power to compel change. The Wilson Schools of the nation are looming physical reminders of a white power structure that is only slowly, if at all, eroding under the flood of diversity initiatives to which our universities direct increasing (but still small) funds. Alienated black students at predominantly white institutions understandably wonder if a frank and honest accounting of American history and modern American society might be easier begun in a neutralized forum—or rather, on an equalized playing field, leveled by their own manifest power to compel a white system to change.

I think that in the case of the Wilson School such conversations will gain more from continually grappling with Wilson’s ghost than from banishing it. But the very reasons I think that—reasons reflecting Wilson's intentional and unintentional lessons regarding the need for humility and the ubiquity of human fallibility—remind me that I might be wrong. Those same reasons, I think, should encourage all Americans pondering these issues to consider that what is right or wrong in one case might not be right or wrong in all cases.

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In the debate over renaming the Wilson School (or Calhoun College at Yale, or Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis for that matter), many resisters will focus on the inconvenience, impracticality, or logistical impossibility of rebranding every school, bridge, boulevard, lake, or town named after a racist. Others will take up the tired refrain that Martin Luther King Jr. was a misogynist and adulterer, and yet we still name rec centers after him.  

These objections miss the mark. Wilson was a great thinker, a great politician, a great man—and a racist. Does Princeton—does America—want to close off the debates and conversations that such an awkward combination can spark? 

If not, then stripping Wilson’s name from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs is a perilous choice. It risks blocking a major approach to the goal that history, perhaps uniquely, proffers to those with the courage to confront it: a grimy but usable past with which to probe, pry apart, and rearrange the pieces of the present.