Woodrow Wilson Will Not Turn in His Grave

The subject of college campus student advocacy and students’ rights  has been marinating in my head for the past few days. It’s wonderful to see college students, especially minority students standing up to school administrators to change the status quo and demand them to be more inclusive of minority students and their cultures.

Minority students demand to be included in important discussions and make their feelings heard when they feel like they’ve been dismissed. Many students will not put up with the cavalier attitudes of professors and administrators when an injustice has occurred, such as race insensitivity, rape, sexual assault and discrimination of all kinds.

College campuses was always fertile ground for student activism and personal expression. It used to be a safe place where people can explore their personal and political identities without it being held against them. It’s sort of like Las Vegas, whatever happens there, stays there (one hopes). It’s a place where you can join a communist party without being seen as a rabid red commie and leave college four years later with your reputation in tact, if, in fact, being a communist was just a phase. For LGBT students who have trouble expressing their sexual orientation at home, college campuses are a safe place to express that if they aren’t ready for the world or their families to find out yet. There is also a dark side to campus groups, there are campus cliques, fraternities and sororities which are ‘exclusive’ to a certain social class or family connection and to be ‘exclusive’ means they are excluding a majority of the people. The Skulls and Bones come to mind – a fraternity of WASPy boys of a certain background pledging lifetime loyalty to each other, come hell or high water, they will take care of each other, if they promise to keep each other’s deepest darkest secrets. The great thing about these cliques or ‘groups’, whether they are exclusive or not is the freedom to express yourself in a safe environment, with very little repercussion.

However, even with best of intentions of student activism for the fight against inequality and discrimination can can go off the deep end. Like it or not, freedom of expression and the right to assembly means people with nefarious intentions have a right to assembly and expression too. And in the context of college campuses, people who wish to outrage others with offensive Halloween costumes may do so. Snobby children of rich parents have the right to form their own social clique celebrating their snobbishness and flaunting their parents wealth. Colleges in the Bible Belt may form Bible groups which denounce all non-Christians as heretics and distribute offensive materials speaking to their beliefs.

The Black Justice League at Princeton University wants all images of President Woodrow Wilson removed from all public spaces and his name taken off buildings that were named after him. And the reason is:

“[The] the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture.”

The Black Justice League launched an online petition at change.org detailing a list of their demands, including a “cultural space” for black students and the space must be named by black students and if black students can’t name them, the school should avoid naming it after a “white benefactor” or “a person with bigoted beliefs”.

Since the topic of white supremacy and white privilege came to fore, on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a call to name and shame all white supremacists and people who benefit from white supremacy, alive or dead. The list is very long, it basically includes every president besides Barack Obama and even that is questionable. It would include every public official (elected or appointed) since the start of this nation up until the present day. And not to be cheeky, but if minority student activists want every name of a ‘racist and bigoted’ person removed from buildings, public spaces and residence halls, they would need to rename every building to Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the other Civil Rights activists.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. – L.P. Hartley (The Go-Between) 

Specifically to the Black Student League and their demands to remove Woodrow Wilson from all public spaces and have the school administrators and deans and acknowledge officially that President Wilson was a rabid racist and bigot. How will this change the past or the present? Isn’t fixating on a long dead president from the previous century a huge waste of time and resources if their aim is to fight inequality and injustice.

In the name of fairness and not promoting white supremacy, I will not name Woodrow Wilson’s achievements, a quick google search will inform one what they are. So,  let’s go over what exactly the crimes of Woodrow Wilson are, besides being an open racist and bigot, which we can safely assume all presidents before 2000 were. According to Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago:

Wilson was not without his flaws, however. During World War I, he, like Presidents John Adams and Abraham Lincoln before him, supported the aggressive suppression of dissent in wartime in a way that seriously damaged the core principles of American democracy.

More to the point of the current controversy at Princeton, Wilson also ordered the segregation of federal government offices, and his War Department drafted hundreds of thousands of African-Americans into the army, gave them equal pay with whites, but — in accord with military policy from the Civil War through the Second World War — assigned them to all-black units with white officers. When a delegation of African-Americans protested this policy, Wilson told them that “segregation is not a humiliation” and ought not “to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

He goes on to add:

It would, of course, have been great if Woodrow Wilson, like some others of his generation, had directly challenged the morality of racial segregation. It would have been great if he had not believed in the principle of white supremacy. But, like all of us, he was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.

Woodrow Wilson and like all presidents mediocre or great, where men of their own times – “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves but was not for the equality between the races. In fact, he was adamant that black and whites should never be equal. Should we tear down the Lincoln Memorial? Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he was in a ‘romantic’ relationship with one of the slaves he owned, which really translates to sexual slavery. Are we to dismantle the Jefferson Memorial? In fact, most of the founders and framers of this nation were men of questionable moral character at one point or another, especially when it came to the issue of slavery. Does this make it right just because they were men of their times? No, of course not. Does it take away their achievements and contributions? No, it doesn’t though it does taint it.

The actions of the college students about these demands look foolish to the wider public, to the adults who live in the real world, they look like spoiled children. People live with injustices and unfairness everyday. Fighting for equality and end to racism is noble and it must be done, but picking on dead presidents isn’t the way to go about it. How will removing Woodrow Wilson from all public spaces contribute towards the real problem of police brutality right now? How does it help towards the gaping economic inequality between blacks and whites? Let’s say Princeton University agrees to this demand and Martin Luther King Jr.’s name (or a name of their choosing) is replaced instead, how does that even erase the ‘racist legacy’ in which Woodrow Wilson left behind (if he was responsible for it to begin with)? If Princeton University’s campus culture is racist in the vein of enforcing white supremacy, promoting anti-black sentiments and xenophobia, it’s the people who are in the current Princeton administration which are responsible, not Woodrow Wilson.

If the demand to remove Woodrow Wilson from all public spaces is just a way for the Black Student League to stick it to the white supremacist administration of Princeton University and a way to humiliate the white power base, then it’s a colossal waste of time and effort. Since in their petition they acknowledge:

We understand that a name change does not dismantle racism, but also know that the way we lionize legacies set precedents.

I am afraid besides history buffs, very few people know about Woodrow Wilson and his contributions to America. Most can’t even tell you when he was president. People’s memory of recent presidents begin with John F. Kennedy and that’s only because he was assassinated in his first term. I bet most students can’t even recall one piece of legislation President Kennedy (there weren’t many, he had a deadlocked congress)  passed or what his major contribution was while he was in office.

Additionally, this demand by the Black Student League slightly worries me:

WE DEMAND a cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students, and that space can be within the Carl A. Fields Center but should be clearly marked. The naming of this space should be at the student’s’ discretion in order to avoid naming it after a white benefactor or person with bigoted beliefs, as evidenced by the naming of Stanhope Hall.

Is this ‘clearly marked’ cultural space only for the exclusive use of black students? Are white and other non-black students banned? Even at the invitation of a black friend? And specifically, what is the purpose of this dedicated ‘cultural’ space for? Is it to explore African-American studies and the studies of other marginalized peoples? Or is it a place for black students to hang out in between classes? Isn’t creating this type of specific cultural space reinforcing another kind of division between races? The biggest hope for fighting racism and inequality is the cohesiveness of the Millennials. Millennials of all races and ethnicities are one of the most cohesive demographics out there, isn’t this type of demand serve to erode that cohesion?

President Obama’s commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates was criticized by black writers and leaders such as Ta-Nehisi Coates for it’s scolding tone towards black young men:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”

We’ve got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.

As unpalatable and as ‘politics of respectability’ this may sound, the president isn’t wrong. He’s only telling the truth as he knows it, as he lived and experienced it. And what he is trying to really say is – in the real world, the one where you have go get a job and support yourself, no one really cares about your feelings. You have a complaint, go home and cry to mommy. If they get a job with a major Fortune 500 corporation and the founder of that corporation was bigot and a racist, for example, The Ford Motor Co., good luck trying to organize and get Ford’s name removed from the building(s).

What college students don’t realize is, the college campus is the last place where anyone gives any considerations to their feelings. It’s the last safe place, a cocoon for self-expression if you will, before one graduates and enters the real world. It is a cruel world where the rules one learns in school do not apply. There is no meritocracy, it’s your schmoozing and social networking skills (face-to-face not Facebook or Twitter) which will get you ahead. You will see the average mediocre white guy get ahead faster than you because his parents know the CEO.

The president said, “nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned”, even if you think you’ve earned it, you still may not get it because of a myriad of factors. The world is harsh, it is cruel, there is often no justice, no fairness and I am only referring to corporate America, not the streets of America. Many people do not get their just dues and no amount demands can change that. The president doesn’t have an answer for these graduates, except that making excuses and giving up isn’t an option.

The central theme of Coate’s writing and advocacy is for the betterment and empowerment of all black people, not just the talented and gifted few such as himself and President Obama:

No president has ever been better read on the intersection of racism and American history than our current one. I strongly suspect that he would point to policy. As the president of “all America,” Barack Obama inherited that policy. I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history, to speak as though the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame. Moreover, I would say that to tout your ties to your community when it is convenient, and downplay them when it isn’t, runs counter to any notion of individual responsibility.

Coates believes the ‘politics of respectability’ has held black people back and black people have been unfairly asked to remedy a situation not of their own doing. This is true, but what is the alternative? Is blaming and making excuses better than individual responsibility? And there are some things, even small things, all of us can do to improve our lot regardless of our present circumstances.

The only irony is Ta-Nehisi Coates is perfect embodiment of the ‘politics of respectability’. He is well-loved and well-integrated into the white system, perhaps not by his choice, but it’s what happened and he’s used that voice to empower black people. All people look to him as some sort of acknowledged authority on race matters. It is his voice and his writings that inform me about Black Lives Matter and other race matters more than anyone else and I am not black. His writing is thoughtful and moving and it’s caused me to think about my race and my privileges in a different light.

There is a fixed amount of capital for every movement, very similar to political capital. Right now the capital the Black Lives Matter movement is still at its peak. It would be a shame to see it wasted on things like removing a dead president’s image and name from university buildings. There is far far more important work ahead. It’s futile to waste capital on symbolic gestures.


One thought on “Woodrow Wilson Will Not Turn in His Grave

  1. Woodrow Wilson was more than just a racist. He was (arguably) the greatest enemy of “free speech” in American history. He stripped Eugene Debs or his citizen ship and put him in jail for what? For making a speech. Congratulations to these students for teaching their elders that this rotten fascist should have no place of honor on any American campus.


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