The Battle of Princeton

This is what happens when you name buildings after human beings.

In this week’s edition of White People Discover Their Heroes Were Racist Thugs, students at Princeton University have demanded that the school disassociate itself with Woodrow Wilson, a man who served as Princeton’s president for eight years before going into politics.

Specifically, today’s protesters want Wilson’s name and likeness removed from all campus buildings, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs.

The basis of this demand is fairly straightforward:  Making an objective appraisal of the record, it becomes clear that Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, an unreconstructed white supremacist.  A man who openly viewed black people as inferior to white people and who, upon becoming president, ran an executive branch that turned this view into official policy, most damningly through the re-segregation of various government offices and facilities.  (When Boston newspaperman Monroe Trotter brought a delegation to the White House to protest, Wilson informed them, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”)

Factoids like these were not unknown to history until last week.  Wilson’s bald racism has been well-documented for eons, available to anyone who cared to look it up.

The problem, then, has been twofold.  First, up until now, few people have cared to educate themselves on the more shameful aspects of our 28th president’s life, both personally and politically.  Second, and more disturbingly, many other folks have known the ugly truth about Wilson all this time but haven’t summoned the strength to be appalled by it.  They simply accept his racist tendencies as a function of the era to which he belonged, then promptly shrug and move on.

The real scandal is how we Americans have allowed ourselves to get away with this for so very long.  How our historical assessments of Wilson’s presidency have focused (appropriately) on his handling of World War I abroad and progressive politics at home, but rarely, if ever, on his handling of race relations a full half-century after Reconstruction began.  As one expert after another has said, Wilson didn’t merely sustain the principle of white supremacy:  he actively made it worse.

Not that I speak from a position of moral superiority.  While I’ve never particularly been a fan of Wilson’s—in college, I wrote a paper detailing his sinister power grabs during the war—my previous understanding of his racism had been limited to his open-arms embrace of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film that lionized the Ku Klux Klan and employed white actors in blackface.  Disturbing as that was, it never led me to dig deeper.  It didn’t occur to me that the president of the United States, five decades after the Civil War, would harbor such bigoted views toward black people and not even bother to hide them.

I’m not quite that naïve today, nor—thankfully—is an increasing chunk of the country as a whole.

Thanks most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters, Americans are no longer permitted to sweep racial prejudice under the rug without one heck of a fight.  While BLM’s focus is on racism in the present, racism in the past has inevitably factored into the argument.  Further, while racial prejudice can often take subtle or even unintentional forms, Wilson’s was neither.  On the race issue, he was simply a scoundrel.  The only question is why it took us so long to acknowledge it.

However, this does not automatically mean we should strike him from the record entirely.  Or, in this case, scrub his name from the college he so ably led.

With the entirety of American history planted in the back of our minds, let us consider—if we may—the Slippery Slope.

Demoting Woodrow Wilson in the popular imagination and at Princeton would undoubtedly make us feel a little better about ourselves, because it would send the message that bigoted men should not be honored or immortalized after they die, regardless of whatever good they might have otherwise done.

Indeed, we have already broadcast this message elsewhere with regards to such controversial figures as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee—men who made their success by subjugating entire classes of Americans.  This year’s extended kerfuffle over the Confederate battle flag seemed to kill several birds with one stone.

But where, exactly, should we draw the line?

If we are to shun Wilson on the grounds that he discriminated against black people, what are we to make of George Washington?  I don’t know about you, but I think personally owning 123 black people is a pretty cut-and-dry example of valuing one race over another.  Although Washington privately spoke of his desire for emancipation and allowed for his own slaves’ freedom upon his death, he didn’t do a thing to advance the cause of racial equality while he was alive and the most powerful man in America.

So what’s the difference between him and Wilson?  If the latter doesn’t deserve to have even a school named for him, why should the former continue to be the namesake of our nation’s capital, one U.S. state and a main thoroughfare in every city and town in this country?

Is it because, although both men were white supremacists, Wilson was more of a jerk about it?  Is it because Washington’s accomplishments as a general and president are just too important to overlook, while Wilson’s leadership in World War I is apparently negligible?  Do we consider an 18th century slaveholder to be somehow more forgivable than a 20th century segregationist?  What’s the standard?

It’s safe to assume that we won’t be expunging the existence of George Washington any time soon, and this might help to clarify why the whole concept of moral cleansing can be so problematic.

The truth is that almost every American leader between 1776 and 1865 was complicit in the perpetuation of a racist society, either through direct action or through silence when action might have done some good.  (Abolitionists were the exception, and many of them paid a huge price for their courage.)  If we are to retroactively adopt this zero-tolerance policy toward race-based discrimination, why shouldn’t we be consistent and apply it to everyone who was responsible?

We know why not:  Because people are complicated and inspiring and compromised and good and evil, usually all at the same time.  Everyone has a little more of some traits than others, and we evaluate an individual’s overall character using some mysterious algorithm that depends a great deal on context—i.e. time and place—and our own biases.

So we tell ourselves that George Washington’s plantation, while unfortunate, is not a deal-breaker for his reputation because, hey, he treated his slaves decently enough and, by the way, he did single-handedly save the country from oblivion on more than one occasion.  It’s not that we ignore that he owned slaves; we just don’t condemn it as strongly as we would if he weren’t the father of his country.  Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Meanwhile, the Woodrow Wilsons of the world—essential as they are—do not carry the same aura of Godliness and, thus, make easier targets for our derision.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Perhaps the posthumous inquisition of Washington is next.  Maybe our righteous zeal to reconcile our country’s shameful history is so strong that it will eventually reach all the way to the top, and we will soon achieve a society in which buildings and institutions are only named for people (or things) who never did anything wrong.

While I would personally have no problem with this result—what’s wrong with naming a school after a tree or a city or the president’s mom?—it would have one unintended consequence:  It would provide us with one fewer mechanism for arguing about the meaning of America.

Let’s be honest:  If a group of Princeton students hadn’t caused such a row about the Wilson School of Public Policy, how many millions of people would never have realized just what a wretched little puke Woodrow Wilson actually was?  However inadvertent on Princeton’s part, the controversy gave way to education, argument and clarity.  That’s precisely what great universities are for.

As for the question immediately at hand—should Princeton capitulate to the students’ demands?—I defer to the wisdom of Ta-Nehisi Coates who, himself ambivalent about the whole thing, nonetheless imagines how, to a black student, “seeing one’s University celebrate the name of someone who plundered your ancestors—in a country that has yet to acknowledge that plunder—might be slightly disturbing.”

Slightly.

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