Eric Yellin, Associate Professor of History at the University of Richmond, gives a brush-off to the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson in a column for USA Today. Says Professor Yellin, Remembering Woodrow Wilson's racism isn't enough.
"Wilson indeed was a flawed and paradoxical figure. He was a racist and must be remembered as such. But consider how much easier it is to write columns about one man’s racism than it is to confront the fact that generations of hard-working Americans were told by their own government that their labor was not worthy because of the color of their skins. Consider how much easier it is to tear down a statue or rename a building than it is to address the economic and social oppression of the people who worked in (and probably built) that building.
The lessons we draw from the student activism at Princeton and across the country must not be about the actions of singular bad men only. They must force us to consider the broad and often quotidian effects of the inequality that pervades many of our national institutions.
Woodrow Wilson was a racist. But this mattered far less to Swan Kendrick than that his life’s prospects could be dimmed by the stroke of a supervisor’s pen.
History is so much more than the battle between mean racists and righteous anti-racists, and confronting it can only bring justice when we attend to its complexities, its grayer shades and its ordinary figures."
Ah, yes. That's what we need to do, understand the nuances. Why is the professor telling us that? Well, for one thing Woodrow Wilson has been a progressive icon among the left-wingers for generations. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Professor Yellin leans left, probably hard left.
An article in Reason Magazine from 2002 described Wilson's reputation this way. It's worth reading the article in its entirety, by the way.
"Wilson's historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective "Wilsonian," still in use, implies a positive if idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world."
Woodrow Wilson's racist history and the damage he did to race relations in the U.S. was not widely known, certainly not known to me, until the rise of the Internet and access to news sources like Reason. Imagine my surprise at learning that Woodrow Wilson held a screening of Birth of a Nation, a movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House. And that he segregated the previously integrated federal civil service. More from Reason:
"What Wilson's election meant to the South was "home rule;" that is,license to pursue its racial practices without concern about interference from the federal government. That is exactly what the 1948 Dixiecrats wanted. But "home rule" was only the beginning. Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet were disturbed at the way the federal government went about its own business. One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington's large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson's cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington."
But Professor Yellin says that now is not the time to focus on the past racist leaders, and instead attend to complexities... and ordinary figures. He says the real problem is not so much Wilson, as it is the supervisor who with the stroke of his pen dimmed the prospects for Swan Kendrick. The professor would rather imply that it's something ingrained in America — an institutional imperfection. Wilson must remain, if not completely blameless, at least secondarily responsible for the immense harm caused to African Americans of his day and to the generations that followed.
I get why the good professor would rather not put much weight on Wilson's negative impact on race relations in America. Now that a progressive hero is revealed as the racist, why it must be a cultural problem. Progressives will need a little time before they can work up the moral courage to disown Woodrow Wilson. And when they do there is only one way that can happen.
My countdown clock starts today. How long will it take for our left wing media to start referring to Woodrow Wilson as "far right?"