Princeton tries to explain the controversy over Woodrow Wilson to Princeton alums

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tags: racism, Woodrow Wilson


… Historians generally agree that Wilson’s racial attitudes were typical of his era and of his party, whose stronghold was the South. “He lived comfortably with the power that Southern Democrats had in Congress and in his party, and race relations were just not front and center in what he was going to do,” says Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “Most Democrats at this period were like him.”

Although Wilson did not share the rabid, obsessive racism of Sen. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, who supported lynching, or Sen. Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina, who spearheaded efforts to disenfranchise black voters, he “essentially resembled the great majority of white Northerners of his time in ignoring racial problems and wishing they would go away,” wrote Cooper, a retired professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his 2009 Wilson biography. Even before Wilson became U.S. president, Cooper notes, the growth in federal jobs for blacks was slowing, as Republicans seeking the votes of white Southerners bowed to pressure from white supremacists, and the Republicans who followed Wilson into the White House did not reverse his administration’s segregation policies. “If there’s a sin, it’s a sin of omission,” Cooper says. “He sanctioned and oversaw a process that was ongoing.”

But other historians note that Wilson, unlike other white racists of his era, had the power to turn his racial attitudes into segregationist policies that ruined the lives of thousands of black Americans — even if Wilson couldn’t single-handedly enact such policies. “He’s not the pivot point there. He doesn’t have that much power,” says Rebecca Rix, an assistant professor of history at Princeton. “But to say he’s no worse than any other racist of his time is not getting it right, either. He is worse. He was in the place to do it, and he had the political motivation to do it, and he did it.”

The rationalizations Wilson offered for segregation, which he justified as a way of promoting government efficiency and the long-term welfare of both races, provided a template for the discrimination that followed, says Yellin, of the University of Richmond. “That kind of talk, I argue, is much more powerful in the long run” than the fire-breathing racism of Tillman and Vardaman, Yellin says. “It’s not a sin of omission if he justified it, if he explained it, if he knew about it and then did nothing to stop it.”

But Wilson’s case is more complicated than that of Calhoun, scholars agree, because his problematic racial policies constitute only part of a larger record of achievement that consistently lands him among the top 10 presidents in surveys of historians and political scientists.

Wilson appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, the anti-monopolist Louis D. Brandeis; spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations; and articulated principles of national self-determination that inspired oppressed peoples across the globe. His administration launched the Federal Reserve system, limiting the power of the banking industry; reduced tariffs that benefited big business at the expense of consumers; opposed child labor; restricted competition-stifling trusts; aided farmers; and established the progressive income tax. “A lot of those programs created the foundation for what followed,” Zelizer says. “You wouldn’t have the Great Society and the New Deal without the tax system, and without the Federal Reserve, and just without the belief that government mattered.”

Long before the current controversy, Wilson’s record of expansionist government and liberal internationalism made him anathema to some conservatives. But even liberal scholars note that Wilson’s progressivism operated within circumscribed limits.

His domestic policies were designed to aid working-class whites but wrote blacks out of the story, while internationally he projected imperial American power in countries such as Haiti and Mexico, inhabited by black- and brown-skinned populations. “There’s obviously a kind of Aryanism that informed his conception of the world,” says Eddie S. Glaude Jr.*97, a religion scholar who chairs Princeton’s Department of African American Studies. “Even as one of the central architects of modern liberalism, he was nevertheless committed to white supremacy. And to whitewash that, to disremember that, is to engage in a kind of willful blindness.”...

Read entire article at Princeton Alumni Weekly

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