“It’s a complex fate to be an American,” observed Henry James, but despite such complexity, America has long been presumptuous about its own greatness. Since its tenuous and fractious founding, America has been in a perpetual argument with itself. On the one hand, the foundation of our republican government is steeped in norms of liberty and equality, and our national ethos bespeaks an egalitarianism, both legally and politically distinct from the aristocracies of old Europe. On the other hand, the story of America, as examined through its people, customs, mores and institutions, contests our self-professed precepts about freedom and justice and evinces a tale about America’s national identity that unearths historical evasions and delusions inherent to the idea of American exceptionalism.
To retell the story of America is to lay waste to our larger, national claims about freedom and democracy and illuminate our own darker recesses. In this regard, the racial protests at Princeton offer up an important history lesson and, in doing so, makes a mockery of our gauzy, race-free fantasies. At its core, a rethinking of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is to magnify a history that is less redemptive than it is messy, exclusionary and often tragic. Accordingly, an authentic re-evaluation of our nation’s history must place race, most crucially, though not exclusively, as central to our discourse, both past and present. In doing so, we can identify what the late political philosopher Michael Rogin called political demonology. For Rogin, paradoxically, both an acknowledgement of race itself and a disavowal of its pernicious effects on the American experiment necessitates that race occupy the center rather than the periphery of our political dialectic.
Reading history through this sordidly candid context, we can both recognize and reject the noxious rhetoric of Donald Trump, but historical honesty similarly allows us to uncover certain uncomfortable truths. As the controversy at Princeton reveals, Woodrow Wilson’s administration presaged an era of progressive government activism, but our nation’s 28th president also championed a racially segregated federal work force. An understanding of Wilson’s racial bias and insensitivity is not to elevate grievances for grievances’ sake. As such, a renaming of The Wilson School isn’t to obliterate a regressive chapter of American history, but rather to acknowledge it. The de-legitimization of political enemies, racial or otherwise, was and is essential to the American political conversation, especially given that America’s nobler ideals have never squarely reconciled with the realities of its history. As ever, there exists a proverbial monster that must be slayed. And Rogin asserts that these existential “threats” from within constitute what he refers to as counter-subversive politics. He explains,
These monsters — the Indian cannibal, the black rapist, the papal whore of Babylon, the monster-hydra United States Bank, the demon rum, the bomb-throwing anarchist, the many tentacle Communist conspiracy, the agents of international terrorism — are familiar figures in the dream life that so often dominates American politics.
Rethinking the American narrative, by definition, mandates a fresh appraisal, if not a rejection of American exceptionalism. Our national mythology was alive and well, 145 years before restive colonists went to war against King George III and the Hanoverians. In 1630, the Puritan minister, John Winthrop proselytized about American uniqueness and its providential sanction through his storied elevation of The New World as a “City Upon a Hill.” In his admonitory sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop, sailing aboard the Arbella, preached that the soon-to-be Massachusetts Bay settlers should aspire to unity and generosity. The Puritanical construct that emerged was far less salutary, however. A nascent, 17th-century America embraced a repressive, Christian piety that for women, blacks and Native Americans was less a trajectory toward freedom and equality than it was a deliverance to despotism.
A reexamination of Wilson’s legacy is not a re-writing of history, but a reckoning with it. Although Wilson is best remembered for emboldening America’s muscular position on the international stage, what’s often forgotten is the degree to which his views on foreign policy were pervaded by racialist thinking. Wilson deemed homogeneity essential to democracy, and as Johns Hopkins political science professor Michael Hanchard points out, Wilson labored under false presumptions about the ethnic makeup of various European nation states. As Hanchard quotes Wilson to illustrate, the president echoed sentiments of nativist thinking:
There is no amalgam of democracy which can harmoniously unite races of diverse habits and instincts or unequal acquirements in thought and action… A nation once come into maturity and habituated to self-government may absorb alien elements, as our own nation has done and is still doing… Homogeneity is the first requisite for a nation that would be democratic.
Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of liberty on the international stage belied his invidious domestic agenda. Not unlike Cold War-era politicians who indicted the repressive tyranny of the Soviet Union while opposing civil rights protections at home, Wilson exemplified a similar cognitive dissonance. Wilson famously declared, “The United States fights for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy.” Yet Wilson’s moral vocabulary rang hollow in view of African-American emancipation. In actuality, Wilson’s outspoken racism was antithetical to freedom and in turn, pathologized black agency.
Last month, a searing Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times. Authored by Gordon J. Davis, the article put a human face on racial stigma, and revealed the reactionary policies enacted by Wilson, even by early 20th century standards. Davis’s grandfather John was born to a successful lawyer and had aspirations to the civil service. Unlike in the south, the Washington, D.C., based federal bureaucracy was something of a sanctuary for black people, who, by dint of their own efforts and proficiency, could find an upward mobility that eluded most of their fellow countrymen. John Davis ascended from laborer to middle management, and by 1908, he was earning a respectable wage. Shortly after Wilson’s inauguration, however, the president enacted a re-segregation policy that amounted to racial expulsion. As Davis recounts:
But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year. By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.
While post-Reconstruction America hardly put an end to de jure racial discrimination, Woodrow Wilson’s racial attitudes remained decidedly retrograde. The first Southerner to be elected to the presidency since the Civil War, the Virginia-born Wilson saw the Ku Klux Klan’s ascendancy as a bulwark against the further participation of African-Americans in political affairs. Wilson also callously ignored the criticism of prominent black leaders by reportedly telling them, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The fraught minefield of race is often reduced to a simplistic binary of guilt and absolution. Our nation’s dialogue about race is not finite, but instead, an ongoing, evolving and dynamic reflection of our deeper, national self. The students of the Black Justice League are not seeking to erase history but to illuminate the ways in which race is intertwined within our past, and they are attempting to theorize freedom. If Woodrow Wilson is to be celebrated for his historical achievements, then surely the student protesters are right to insist that the historical record be complete.
Indeed, black lives do matter and so does history. More often than not, an acknowledgement of race and racism in general is erroneously characterized as victimhood, as if there is an etch-a-sketch for historical sins that somehow can be shaken clear by legislative redress or economic advancements. America is not alone among nations in having been conceived not in liberty, but in murder and enslavement. Yet America has trumpeted its own paeans to freedom louder and more frequently than most. There’s no debate that America has made racial progress, but claims about American exceptionalism are bogus if they can’t bear the authenticity and scrutiny of history. And claims about a “post-racial” America aren’t simply misguided, but woefully ignorant. Fantasies about freedom are not uncommon, but in America they are as resolutely stubborn as they are false. Listen to these student protesters as they strive to wash away our amnesia. Or as venerated author Ta-Nehisi Coates witheringly exclaims:
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.