New Names, and Bad Names

Students at Princeton University have started a campaign to try to get the school rename the things on campus that now honor U.S. (and one-time Princeton) President Woodrow Wilson, because he was a racist.

According to this article by Andy Newman in the New York Times:

After a walkout by about 200 students, and the presentation by the Black Justice League of a list of demands, about 15 students occupied the office of the president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, overnight on Wednesday. On Thursday, Mr. Eisgruber agreed to begin discussions on campus and with trustees about the demands.

At the top of the group’s list was a demand that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” and take steps to rename the public policy school and residential college.

Should they do this? Well sure, if they want. Princeton trustees may end up deciding that Wilson has become a public relations problem for the school, and go ahead and minimize the school’s connection to the president. But where does this end?

Wilson was, of course, a dreadful racist. He once said that “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you.” When elected president of the United States one of his first policies was to end racial integration in the federal civil service. He supported and hosted a White House screening of the very racist Birth of a Nation in 1915.

WilsonRacist

And there’s nothing wrong with colleges changing the names of things for political reasons. Princeton is not an ancient institution founded by saints; it’s a college less than 300 years old founded (in part) by the father of noted historical villain Aaron Burr. Even the name of the college isn’t original; it was called the College of New Jersey until 1896.

But it seems to me that there are significant differences between the role of Woodrow Wilson in American history and the role of other famous racists students are, quite understandably, eager to remove from other American college campuses.

Students at Yale are now asking the school to rename Calhoun College, the institution’s residential college now named to honor the man who spent his career defending and promoting slavery and who urged southern states to succeed from the union if they felt so inclined. This summer students at the University of Texas at Austin demanded that administrators remove the campus statue of Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederacy.

But while we rightly condemn all of these men as racists, there’s a difference between the contributions of Wilson and those of Calhoun and Davis. Calhoun and Davis remain famous mostly because they were racists and fought to defend slavery. Wilson, in contrast, did a lot of other really important things. He is rightly memorialized across the country for progressive domestic reforms, helping the allies to win World War I, and promoting international cooperation.

The reason the adverse reaction to Wilson at Princeton comes as such a surprise to many Americans is because we’ve forgotten about his racism. And that’s because his racist polices were simply not his major contribution to world history.

So fine, let’s go ahead and rename some stuff at Princeton that now honors the guy who promoted segregation. But “no racism” simply cannot be the standard we use to assess all American historical figures. That would leave us with very few white people from the South worthy of respect. At least very few people before the 1870s. Is that really an appropriate standard?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer