SHOULD PRINCETON DISOWN WOODROW WILSON AND HIS LEGACY OF RACISM?
Recently, a group of students at Princeton, calling themselves The Black Justice League, walked out of class and did a sit-in in the office of the university president, Christopher Eisgruber. [Video from inside the office]Their demand, as you have probably heard, is that Princeton should “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” and remove his name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and from the school’s undergraduate Wilson College. Their demands, and our response to them, says a lot about where we are as a society when it comes to race.
Before we begin, let me acknowledge that I am a white man and have never experienced being a minority, aside from my day-to-day life as an orthodox Christian living in Manhattan, and I recognize that is different in kind.
I should also acknowledge that I’m a Princeton alum and, more than that, I’m an active fundraiser for the school. I loved my experience there, but that’s not to say the school didn’t have its faults. When I was a freshman, I remember wondering why all the black kids sat together in the dining all, not really comprehending why it might be that they didn’t feel at home in this overwhelmingly white Ivy League school.
Finally, perhaps it is relevant to know my roommate in my junior and senior year was black and so I somewhat vicariously experienced college through him too, though he was not from the U.S. so his perceptions were different than an Americans. I don’t know how much of my background matters, but I thought it’d be worth mentioning.
If you have comments, please share them at the bottom, and highlight what you find thought-provoking.
Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton
Did you know that Woodrow Wilson, who got the US into World War I and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for pushing for a “League of Nations,” was racist? Some argue that the whole society was racist in his era, but even among his peers, historians claim, Wilson stood out.
In a New York Times story, “At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, a Heralded Alum, Is Recast as an Intolerant One,” (7 minute read) Andy Newman recounts that Wilson was raised in the south and “wrote of ‘a great Ku Klux Klan’ that rose up to rid whites of “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes.”
During Wilson’s tenure as president of Princeton, no blacks were admitted — “The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied,” he wrote — though Harvard and Yale had admitted blacks decades earlier. Princeton admitted its first black student in the 1940s.
Some black students at Princeton were upset with the fact that Princeton honored him and didn’t acknowledge the historical realities of his racism. In an article on the Princeton sit-in (4 minute read) The Guardian’s Ellen Brait interviewed a senior in the Black Justice league named Ozioma Obi-Onuoha:
“We wanted to draw attention not only to the fact that he was, even for that time, extremely racist, but that his racist legacy is never acknowledged explicitly and publicly on campus, although he is touted and applauded for his contributions,” Obi-Onuoha said. “Additionally, we don’t believe that removing his name is a form of erasure, because we’re also asking for his history to be acknowledged permanently by the university, in its entirety.”
As The Guardian article points out, if Princeton were to do something about the Wilson buildings, they wouldn’t be the first University to do so.
“On 14 November, the current president of Georgetown University announced that the school is renaming two buildings on campus because their namesakes, former presidents of the school, helped pay off campus debt in the 1830s by organizing the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves…Statues of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, have also been targeted at the University of Missouri at Columbia and the College of William and Mary, according to Inside Higher Ed. The statues have been covered with yellow sticky notes, calling Jefferson a “rapist”, “racist” and “slave owner”. No group has stepped forward and claimed responsibility for the notes at William and Mary but the school is not treating the incident as vandalism.”
Conversations with Friends about Race
I’ve had several conversations with friends this week, friends from Princeton, and friends from back home in Colorado, about what they think of this. Folks seem to fall into three camps:
The first camp, respectfully acknowledges that race is, or at least may be, a problem on campus but they think that renaming buildings goes too far. Wasn’t everyone “back then” racist, they say? One friend from said, “If you go down the rabbit trail of taking down statues, portraits and names from buildings of racist individuals in history, due in large part to the culture of their times, you’ll be left with a lot of bare walls and nameless structures.”
Another friend argued that nearly every minority group could make claims of hurt and was unconvinced in the worth dredging up history:
“I agree that members of discreet populations, particularly minority groups that have or are experiencing discrimination and feel a sense of hurt, deserve that deference in particular. Historically speaking, the list of groups who have experienced discrimination is unfortunately quite long. For example, there was once a time when Irishmen were considered subhuman by the native population of the United States. Or look at the ugly record of treatment directed at religious groups like Catholics or Mormons at different times in our history. All discrimination has not been the same, and in no way do I mean to equate those examples to that of the experience of the black community in America. But I think it points to a reality…that we can’t wipe away the past. For better and for worse, it has brought us to where we are today. Rather than delete or revise history, we should learn from it.”
A third friend said he thought the University’s efforts to assimilate students like him as well as students of color were laughable and inneffective. “The University,” he wrote, “is a naive observer of the undergraduate community, mainly interested in conservatively avoiding public problems and negative publicity.” Class, he said, not race, is what causes exclusion at places like Princeton. He bets that upper-class minorities had at least as much success as he did at shaping their experience at school. As for Woodrow Wilson, this friend still thinks the idea of erasing him from campus is misdirected:
“He was an illiberal progressive who didn’t believe in personal liberty. And he was a racist Southerner. Ok, but aside from that stuff, there is the question of how far we go to purge our memorials of statesmen who don’t fare well under modern standards of conduct? We’d do well to ask how we want to be regarded by future generations for our transgressions against their standards. Some symbolic purging of the more repugnant exponents of past injustices is healthy. Let Jefferson Davis take it on the chin. But while I’d personally enjoy some purging of Wilson, I don’t think it is good practice for a national community or a University.”
The Rise of Victimhood Culture
The second camp of people I talked to about Wilson thinks the whole thing is overdone. Life is pretty good for everyone at Princeton and people are being too sensitive. There aren’t issues of racism at Princeton like at other places. There has been no violence done there. They question whether actions like this are just evidence of hyper-political correctness.
If you don’t know what they are talking about, did you read this fascinating article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic about “Microagressions and the Rise of Victimhood Culture” (12 minute read)? It argues that there have been two major cultures for dealing with insults. There are “honor cultures,” where disrespect might lead to a duel or at least a fist fight, and “dignity cultures,” where insults provoke offense but the offended don’t stoop to the level of acknowledging it.
Two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that on college campuses students are practicing a new “victimhood culture” characterized by “concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
The article details a revealing and depressing exchange between students at Oberlin college about two students getting offended by each other over one of them asking the other to play a game of “football.” Worth reading.
Bryan Stevenson’s Argument Against Victimhood Culture
The third camp of people I’ve talked to support the Princeton protests. One person I talked to said he “just likes to see young people rebelling,” especially in the Ivy League. But others were more specifically supportive of the idea that racism remains a problem and Wilson is an unacknowledged symbol of racism on campus.
After the South Carolina church shooting, I read an interview in The Marshall Project blog with Just Mercy author and attorney Bryan Stevenson. (24 minute read) In it Stevenson compellingly makes the case that we have never fully dealt with racism in this country, a view that may feel strange to some readers, but which he defends strongly. It still has me thinking. And it has me thinking that if this is right, the Wilson issue is about far more than “victimhood culture.”
Stevenson argues that Al Qaeda and ISIS aren’t the first perpetrators of terrorism in our country. Slavery and post-slavery lynchings throughout the South were homegrown examples of terrorism against blacks in this country.
“We’ve got majority black cities in Detroit, Chicago, large black populations in Oakland and Cleveland and Los Angeles and Boston, and other cities in the Northeast. And the African Americans in these communities did not come as immigrants looking for economic opportunities, they came as refugees, exiles from lands in the South where they were being terrorized. And those communities have particular needs we’ve never addressed, we’ve never talked about. We’ve got generational poverty in these cities and marginalization within black communities, and you cannot understand these present-day challenges without understanding the Great Migration, and the terror and violence that sent the African Americans to these cities where they’ve never really been afforded the care and assistance they needed to recover from the terror and trauma that were there…”
People think racism is no longer relevant, he argues, because we’ve learned to talk politely about black people as African Americans and not use the N-word. We all celebrate the civil rights movement as a moment of great American courage. But, Stevenson, says, that tells only part of the story.
“…I hear people talking about the civil rights movement and it sounds like a three-day carnival. Day One: Rosa Parks gave up her seat on the bus. Day Two: Dr. King led a march on Washington, and Day Three: we just changed all these laws. And we tell our history as if it’s the true history when in fact that’s not the true history. The true history is that for decades, we humiliated black people in this country every day. For decades we did not let them vote, we did not let them get full education, we did not let them work for pay, we did not let them live as full human beings with dignity and hopefulness, we denied all of these basic opportunities to African Americans, and we’ve never really talked about the consequences of that era of apartheid and segregation…
“…And so we are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates says we are still dealing with racism…through the prison system
Stevenson’s arguments are given the weight of evidence and research in another piece I read, by recent MacArthur Prize winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his monumental Atlantic essay “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” (101 minute read) That piece is so big and the argument so sweeping it almost deserves its own Reader. I can’t adequately summarize it here.
I can only say that Coates looks at the unreal size of America’s prison population (we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population; although China has 4x as many people, we have half a million more people imprisoned; Russia has the next highest proportion of citizens in prison, but they have still less than half the rate we have!).
Then he examines how blacks make up a disproportionate share of prisoners (“In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated — 10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers”) such that as sociologist Devah Pager has said:
“Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups, rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood.”
Coates ties both of these situations, through lots of research, to the history of slavery, lynching, and discrimination of blacks in the U.S. The piece is well-researched. It feels book-length long. It is certainly worth reading
If I were to predict what will happen at Princeton, my guess is that the Wilson buildings will maintain their names until a wealthy alum volunteers to pay for their redesign and renaming.
Certainly other residential colleges at Princeton have given naming rights to their benefactors — Meg Whitman, Malcolm Forbes, John D. Rockefeller — so this would be nothing new.
IMAGINING THE REVERSE
As for myself, I’m trying to imagine the reverse of reality. What if I as a white man were living in a majority black society and majority black Princeton, where a hundred years ago a black president of the US and of Princeton led a majority black country and black university? What if that president talked openly about the inferiority of white people and argued people like me should always be segregated and kept at a safe distance from the black race?
If I go there, I have a lot more sympathy. If I think about it like that, Wilson’s name could feel like a Confederate flag feels to some — a painful symbol of a shameful part of our history. I still don’t think I would support removing his name from the school, for reasons mentioned above. But it makes me wonder at what level of racism or other misconduct would I support taking that action?
NO MORE HEROES
The fact is that when you put someone’s name on a building you honor them. You are saying that these are people for whom we ought to be grateful. The trouble is, almost all of our “heroes” have significant flaws. This is the trope of almost every modern American television show, from Breaking Bad to House of Cards to Mad Men. All heroes, they seem to say, are anti-heroes with major character defects. And the thing is, these shows are basically right. Wilson was a racist. Kennedy, for whom the Harvard Kennedy School was named, was an adulterer, as was, apparently, Martin Luther King, Jr.
You might say that marital infidelity is less of a “sin” than racism, another point that is almost universally made in television today (again, in Mad Men, House of Cards, The Affair, etc), but regardless, the broader point remains, no one is perfect, not even the people we most honor in our culture. And in our media culture, we’re more likely to find out about those flaws than in the past.
That’s why so many parents, including myself, are ambivalent at best about their kids making heroes out of athletes and movie stars. You just know they are going to embarrass themselves at some point and what do you say to the kids then? Oh and if someone seems nearly perfect in our generation, you can bet in future generations public sentiment may shift and find flaws in them that today we minimize or don’t even recognize.
What our culture instinctively knows, that every hero has some deep flaws and ugly characteristics, is simply a way of saying the same thing I was taught in Sunday School — that everyone has a stain, a flaw, or many flaws. We are all not as good as we should be, even the best among us. In faith terms, we call this fact“sin.” Sin is itself a borrowed term archery term, one that means an arrow has “fallen short of the target.” In that sense, sin describes me. I fall short even of my own ideals, constantly. I suspect that many readers would admit the same. So then what?
If everyone isn’t what they appear and isn’t what they ought to be, even our heroes, what do we do? Should we have no heroes? Should we un-name all our buildings?
I think it’s unhelpful to make this issue of blacks and whites a morally black-and-white issue (yes, I intended that). Everyone good is flawed, but conversely every flawed person has some good in them. It is the work of wisdom in a society or in a school culture to thoughtfully evaluate the whole of a person’s life and determine if, on balance, we ought to honor them or continue to honor them.
Anyone deciding to honor someone like Wilson who has major known flaws ought to, as the Black Justice League at Princeton advocates, acknowledge those flaws, explain those things are not endorsed, and describe why the person is being honored in spite of their imperfections. This explanation, perhaps in a public statement, perhaps in a plaque placed on the building’s edifice might detract from the wholesale veneration of the honored saint, but it would be more honest, more humble, and more of what we need.
Some summary reflections.
- Race is an issue at Princeton, as it is an issue in America. Still. Today. We need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge what centuries of racism has done to the black community and what we should do about it.
- The second order effects of racism, slavery, lynching continue to have profound effects on the black community in America — through broken families, crime and mass incarceration.
- This isn’t Princeton President Eisgruber’s issue. He didn’t create it. It is an issue every alum ought to be thoughtful about.
- Racism and its effects also aren’t just a Princeton issue. It is an America-wide issue, from Yale to Ferguson to Chicago to Missouri to New York City.
- No one is worth endorsing wholesale. We are all sinners, even if some are saints. Any decision to particularly honor one person must be made in light of that person’s flaws and transgressions.
- At the University of Missouri, students forced change when the football team threatened not to play (putting millions of dollars at stake). That wouldn’t work at Princeton or other places where sports aren’t as lucrative.
- The students at Princeton might be good negotiators. I think what they really want, and what we really ought to have, is an acknowledgement of Wilson’s full legacy, good and bad. They set a high bar in their demands, probably knowing they won’t get re-named buildings, but I bet you dollars to donuts they at least get an official statement about Wilson’s legacy. The President has asked the Board of Trustees to review Wilson’s legacy and how to portray it on campus. Many across the country will await what they have to say.
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