We Can No Longer Ignore the Power of Woodrow Wilson's Racist Ideas

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tags: racism, Woodrow Wilson



Ibram X. Kendi teaches African-American history at the University of Florida. His new book, "Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America," will be published by Nation Books in April.

About a month has passed since members of Princeton University’s Black Justice League staged their 32-hour sit-in in the president’s office. The argument over whether to purge President Woodrow Wilson’s name from a Princeton dining hall, residential college, and public-policy school continues to pound the walkways of Princeton’s idyllic campus. It continues to heat up Princeton’s literary platforms: The Daily Princetonian published an editorial; the Black Justice League, an open letter. The debate continues off-campus among Princeton alumni, in their letters to newspaper editors and to Princeton’s Board of Trustees, which is forming a subcommittee to re-examine Wilson’s legacy and place on the campus.

The guardians of Wilson’s legacy have consistently acknowledged his racism but then listed his progressive achievements. Others have recoiled against his racism and called for his name to be removed from the campus. Still others have refused to engage in the naming debate. Hardly anyone has taken the time to seriously address the racist ideas of Professor Woodrow Wilson — the same ideas he used to defend his foreign and domestic racist policies — the same ideas that produced his affection for the Ku Klux Klan. We cannot neglect the role of his academic work.

"My chief interest is in politics, in history as it furnishes object-lessons for the present," Wilson said before earning his doctorate in political science at the John Hopkins University, in 1886. And he sought to provide scholarly "object-lessons" not only for his peers, but also for general readers.

These general readers included college students. In 1889, Professor Wilson’s The Stateappeared, one of America’s first acclaimed political-science textbooks and a staple in classrooms until the 1920s. If not for John William Burgess, who established the Political Science Quarterly and then the first doctorate-granting political-science program at Columbia University, Wilson may have gone down as the disciplinary founder of American political science. Generations of aspiring government workers learned from Wilson about those "European and American governments," which "constituted the order of social life for those stronger and nobler races which have made the most notable progress in civilization." The governments of those "primitive" races "that are defeated or dead would aid only indirectly towards an understanding of those which are alive and triumphant, as the survived fittest." Wilson went about promoting the old racist idea that rationalized Western imperialism abroad and white rule at home: White people in Europe and America had fashioned the world’s finest governing systems.

Professor Wilson moved to Princeton University in 1890. It was a crucial year in the history of racism — and not just because Mississippi Democrats’ new "understanding clause" set off the Southern rush of disenfranchising policies that would result in Wilson’s never having to associate with a single black congressman as president, from 1913 to 1921. When the 1890 census revealed that the black population was increasing at a substantially lower rate than the white population, racist Social Darwinists finally had their proof that freed black people, released from the nurturing care of their civilizing enslavers, were now losing the struggle for existence. ...




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